KRYMSK, Russia - Russia's president ordered investigators on Sunday to determine whether more could have been done to prevent the deaths of at least 150 people in severe flooding in the Black Sea region that turned streets into rivers, swept away bridges and inundated thousands of homes as many residents were sleeping.
Vladimir Putin, who was criticized in past years for a delayed or seemingly indifferent response to disasters, flew to the region in southern Russia committed to showing he was taking charge of the situation.
He ordered the head of Russia's investigative agency to establish whether enough had been done to warn people about the floods. Federal prosecutors also said they were investigating whether the population had been properly protected from "natural and technological catastrophes."
Russia has seen a series of natural and man-made disasters in recent years, many of them blamed on aging infrastructure or lax safety rules.
Torrential rains dropped up to a foot of water in less than 24 hours, which the state meteorological service said was five times the monthly average. The water rushed into the hard-hit town of Krymsk early Saturday with such speed and volume that residents said they suspected that water had been released from a reservoir in the mountains above. Local officials denied this, saying it was not technically possible to open the sluices.
Federal investigators, however, acknowledged Sunday that water had been released from the reservoir, but they insisted it did not cause the flooding and the dam had not been breached.
Krymsk received a total of about 221 millimeters (almost nine inches) of rain overnight, but 50 millimeters (two inches) of that came in less than an hour late Friday, the meteorological service said.
The heaviest rain fell in Gelendzhik, a popular seaside vacation spot about 200 kilometres (120 miles) up the coast from Sochi, where preparations are under way for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Novorossiisk, a major Black Sea port, also was affected.
The Interior Ministry said Sunday that 150 bodies had been recovered, 139 of them in Krymsk and nine in Gelendzhik, including five who were electrocuted after a transformer fell into the water. The majority of the dead were elderly who were unable to escape the sudden deluge.
Residents of Krymsk described a wave of water that washed over the hoods of cars and inundated one-story homes. Some sought refuge on roofs and in trees.
Viktor Nikolyuchiny said he and his wife were roused by their daughter, who lives a block away.
"I came out and the water was already up to my waist," he was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying Sunday. "My wife has difficulty walking, and if not for our neighbour she would have drowned." He said they waited out the storm at the neighbour's home, which unlike theirs has a second story.
Putin arrived Saturday evening and viewed the damage from the air. Television footage of Krymsk shot from Putin's helicopter showed the city of 57,000 people partially submerged in muddy water. The city stadium looked more like a lake.
Across the Krasnodar region, more than 5,000 homes were flooded.
The Krasnodar region governor said during a meeting with Krymsk residents on Sunday that the first warnings of possible flooding came at 10 p.m. Friday, and the heaviest rainfall was from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. Saturday.
"Do you think we could have warned each of you and that you would have gotten up and left your homes?" Gov. Alexander Tkachev asked, according to RIA Novosti.
The city set off a siren at around 4:30 a.m., but the residents said they didn't hear it, the news agency reported.
As an indication of the lingering concern over the condition of the water reservoir, Putin sent Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov to inspect the dam. Puchkov reported Sunday that he had flown over the dam in a helicopter and saw no evidence of any damage.
Lynn Berry reported from Moscow.