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Kherson flooded: Rescues continue under Russian fire

Igor Burdyga in Kherson, Ukraine
June 10, 2023

The southern Ukrainian city of Kherson has been flooded by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam. Evacuation efforts have been complicated by shelling from Russian troops. DW reports from the city.

Two people in a rubber dinghy float down a flooded street
Rescuers have been using boats to get around KhersonImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

On the morning of June 6, the world learned of the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, which had been controlled by Russian troops since the start of their invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

According to Kyiv's version of events, which Moscow has denied, the power plant was blown up during the night. As a result of the explosion, the dam broke, and the plant and the dam were destroyed. Water levels in the Kakhovka Reservoir began to drop rapidly, while the surrounding areas in the lower reaches of the Dnieper River, including Kherson, were flooded.

DW correspondent Igor Burdyga visited the area and reported on what he experienced in Kherson over the past three days.

June 7, morning

Dozens of stunned Kherson residents stand under the World War II memorial and watch as giant poplars are carried off by the Dnieper River, past the embankment and on toward the Black Sea. Two barges, torn from their anchors by the current, have drifted here.

Granite stairs descend from the monument to the embankment. For decades, they served as a venue for local open-air concerts. Now the bottom three flights are already underwater, and the flood keeps rising.

Local resident swims on an inflatable mattress in a flooded area in Kherson
Local residents used whatever they could to escape flooded areas in KhersonImage: Olexander Kornyakov/AFP

The faces of the townspeople who survived eight months of Russian occupation and half a year of shelling at the front line are etched with confusion and shock. No one has seen anything like this before.

Maksym, a man in his 40s, says the potential destruction of the dam, built in the late 1950s, was not a new topic in conversations among Kherson residents. "The last time there was a lot of panic was in 2000, when everyone was afraid of a computer failure due to the Y2K problem," he says, recalling the fear, which many Ukrainians shared, that a computer bug would cause power station failures. "The engineers explained that only the lower quarters of Kherson would be flooded."

Maksym is now putting up a colleague from the local electricity supply company whose house in the Komyshany suburb was flooded a day ago.

Residents of flooded Kherson brace for more hardship

"No, no, there was a time when we were already flooded a lot. I was 5 then, I think," says 78-year-old Maria, standing next to him. She seems to remember a large-scale flood in the distant past, but gets confused recalling the years and events.

Her son, Ihor, leads us along a narrow path between some houses closer to his mother's home, the roof of which now barely sticks out of the water. "Mom, you watered the tomatoes yesterday," the man jokes. The water would have to rise another 10-15 meters (up to 50 feet) to reach his own house, so the family is going to stay there.

Meanwhile, a few kilometers downstream, the residents of Vorontsovska Street have been trapped since the morning. Overnight, the shoreline moved 500 meters inland from the river port building, flooding several blocks of high-rise buildings up to the second floor, and in some places even higher.

Rescuers evacuate trapped residents from high-rise buildings in Kherson
Rescuers have evacuated trapped residents from high-rise buildings in KhersonImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

June 7, afternoon

Rescuers, police officers, military personnel, journalists and volunteers who have come to the city from all over the country gather on the new "shore" of Kherson. Rubber boats are rowing up to windows and attics of flooded high-rise buildings, rescuing people who have been trapped by the floodwaters. Some people are rescued in their underwear, but apart from money and documents, they are not allowed to take many things with them anyway.

Nearly half of the volunteers and boats are rescuing pets. After the recent news about the deaths of animals at the zoo in Nova Kakhovka on the occupied left bank of the Dnieper, nobody wants to leave animals to die.

June 8, morning

The water rises a few more meters, but still cannot completely flood the high banks of the Dnieper. It was already known that due to the topography, the right bank was only partially threatened by flooding.

However, the Kherson district of Korabel, on an island, is now almost completely underwater. The evacuation of the few residents who remained there after six months of merciless artillery shelling began as soon as they received news of the dam's destruction. Now, by the third day, rescuers on boats seem to be searching only for animals among the houses.

The number of boats increases every hour. Kherson is a city of shipbuilders. Before the war, there were several shipyards and a few yacht clubs here, and almost every resident of the coastal areas owned a motor boat.

But in November, the Russian army retreated to the left bank and seized all available watercraft. Now Ukrainian volunteers are trying to source more boats from across Ukraine. The boat has become a gateway to the city, though the Ukrainian military occasionally tries to seal off the town due to the threat of air and artillery strikes.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands with a group of men, surveying the damage
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Kherson on Thursday, in the aftermath of the floodImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP/dpa/picture alliance

June 8, noon

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives in Kherson. After meeting the rescuers and the military, he visits the already flooded Korabelna Square. From here there is a bridge to the Korabel district on its island, but now it is of no use, since you can only get there by boat.

A few blocks to the north, we find a watercraft for ourselves  a small inflatable boat without a motor. It lies abandoned in an empty alley, so the three of us row slowly around someone's garden, and see a grocery kiosk, only visible by its sign sticking out of the water. There are no longer any people here or in the neighboring high-rise buildings.

June 8, afternoon

Shells start whistling overhead  Korabelna Square is being attacked from the left bank. It is difficult to explain this attack: the Ukrainian president left the area more than an hour ago and evacuation operations are ongoing, so the only potential targets could be rescuers, policemen, volunteers and journalists. After several explosions, nine are injured, including a volunteer from Germany.

We row to the yellow wall of a half-flooded two-story building, holding on to some cables so as not to be swept away by the current. One of the shells hits a house 30 meters (about 100 feet) from our boat, though fortunately the building is empty. Having waited a long time for the artillery from both sides to finally die down, we row back to the shore twice as fast.

Ukraine war: Russian shelling hits flood-hit Kherson

June 8, evening

The water stops rising.

June 9

The shelling continues, despite concerns expressed by the UN and more drastic statements from humanitarian organizations. According to satellite images and information from residents of the left bank, the floodwaters actually forced the Russian army to move away from the Dnieper.

But the city is still within reach of artillery and some missile systems, and missiles that strike civilian targets are becoming increasingly common in Kherson. On June 9, one of the projectiles hits a school near the shore, while another strikes the roof of a nine-story building in the Shumensky district. Luckily there are no injuries.

But the flood also allows the Ukrainian military to make its way cautiously to the left bank, first to the town of Oleshky, which was almost completely flooded. Videos circulating on social media show locals sitting on rooftops awaiting rescue. Several groups of rescuers only manage to reach Oleshky from Kherson in heavy boats  rubber boats are simply washed away by the current.

A rescuer holds a dog as people behind him get in a rubber dinghy
Rescuers have been saving both people and animalsImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

But now there's another problem: the flood has raised mines that the military used to defend the approaches to their positions for the past six months. After the first reports of boats exploding, the military is trying to limit rescue navigation or at least take control of this volunteer flotilla.

The water level has now started to recede, but it will not drop to previous levels, according to local ecologists. Soon, it will have to be pumped out of flooded homes. The local humanitarian center says over the coming months, pumps and chemical agents for water purification are now the city's most urgent needs.

Land mines dislodged by Ukraine dam disaster pose new threat

This article was translated from Ukrainian.

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