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Kherson struggles with the aftermath of June flooding

Igor Burdyga
July 21, 2023

On June 6, the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine flooded when the Kakhovka dam was destroyed. Volunteers have flocked to the city to help residents clear the water and rubble, but there's a long way to go.

Three people wearing helmets in front of a pile of garbage and an excavator
Volunteers have come from all over Ukraine to help with the efforts to clean upImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

It is July and the midday sun is blazing on Kherson's Tchaikovsky Street. It is 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade, which is hard to find. Dozens of workers from different regions of Ukraine wearing black protective vests have taken shelter under a makeshift fence of wooden planks and trees as they wait for a garbage truck to return from the landfill. When the white truck with Kyiv license plates arrives, they immediately grab their shovels. Plaster, furniture, children's toys and books pile up.

"Everything is damp. People are throwing out moldy garbage and putting it outside their homes and we are disposing of it for free," says one of the men.

The residents have been variously affected by the flood that struck the city on June 6, after the Kakhovka dam was destroyed. Victor, who has lived here for 23 years, says that he and his mother were lucky compared to their neighbors: The flood did not make it beyond the veranda of their house at the top end of the street. Only the basement, garden and an old car ended up underwater.

"We got off lightly; the cracks in the walls have already disappeared a little and the basement storage room was only damaged," says the former sailor, adding that he has already planted new tomatoes in the garden.

On the other side of the street, the situation is much worse. Scraping plaster off his house, Anatoly Silak says he has already filled three trucks. "There was a clay oven here and it collapsed. So did the chimney," he explains.

The Silaks bought their house, which is over 50 years old, in 2019 and spent two years renovating it. They put in new furniture and appliances but on June 6, they only managed to take their dog and their documents as the flood approached. They are now staying in an apartment in Kherson, whose owners are temporarily in Odesa. "When they come back, I don't know where we will go," says Anatoly's wife, Iryna.

For the past month, she has been busy with administrative procedures — with the police and the regional authorities. If they want compensation from the state and international organizations and help with future reconstruction, those affected by the flood have to do all the paperwork themselves. Authorities had received 3,000 applications for help from residents by July 12. A third of the applicants had already received 5,000 hryvnia (ca. €120 or $135).

A dilapidated building and a muddy yard
Much of the city of Kherson was flooded after the Kakhovka dam was destroyedImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

'We are helping the residents, praying for them'

Volunteers from an evangelical church in Kyiv have also come to help the residents. After the flood, they rescued people with boats and now they are pumping water out of the houses. "We are helping the residents, praying for them, giving them a little hope because many are losing this at the moment," says Konstantin Kuksa, a tall and bearded military chaplain.

A bit further down, the owners of the houses on Prychalna Street, which are still partly flooded, have not returned. "Bless us, dear Lord," says Kuksa as he tries to start a pump. When the motor starts, dirty water mixed with mud flows towards the Kosheva River.

Another volunteer named Roman wears a white protective suit to go into a house on Tchaikovsky Street whose owner has equipped it with a humidifier. He sprays the walls with chemicals to combat fungal growth. "The walls will dry again. They will need a coat of plaster and then the people will be able to fix everything else themselves," he says reassuringly.

If only it were that simple.

A man wearing a sunhat and sunglasses
Konstantin Kuksa is a military chaplain who is providing support and a glimmer of hope Image: Igor Burdyga/DW

Thousands of homes flooded

According to the Ukrainian authorities, there were no more flooded houses on the right bank of the Dnipro River as of July 12. The information pertaining to the left bank comes from the Russian occupation authorities, according to whom there were about 6,400 houses still under water.

It is difficult to get a full picture of the situation since the Kakhovka dam was destroyed because there is daily artillery fire across the Dnipro. On the basis of satellite images, experts from the Kyiv School of Economics estimate that over 11,000 houses on both sides of the river were completely flooded and 6,500 were partially flooded. Over 33,500 houses were "probably flooded" because they are located in the flooded area.

A person in a white protective suit in a room with walls covered in mud
Experts say that many of the houses in Kherson are no longer soundImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

"The scale of the destruction is truly shocking," says Olena Vasylko from the Lviv region building authorities, who has been invited to head an expert commission, of which there are a number in Kherson at the moment. The Lviv team is responsible for surveying private property on Tchaikovsky Street and its surroundings, and for conducting damage assessments.

"There will be more damage to the houses as they dry," says Vasylko. She has proposed a new development for the lower part of the street. "But a decision on this will only be possible after the victory," she adds.

Her colleague Leonid Vosnyuk, a professor of architecture at Lviv Polytechnic, explains that the water stood for too long and the buildings, which date back to the middle of the 20th century, struggled to cope.

"There are walls made of tree trunks that were laid on clay. Some half-timbered houses were made of mud and reeds. The mud was completely washed away. Some of the foundations were also washed away, and we still don't know what's happened with the base," he explains. "Of the four houses we were able to inspect today, three were classified as unsound."

He adds that despite the heat, and despite the fact that hundreds of residents have not come back and many do not know if they will ever live in their homes again, the general atmosphere is more cheerful than might be expected. "I am impressed by people's friendliness and positive attitude," he says. "This is unique in Ukraine. That's why I think we're strong."

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.

Ukraine: Explosion of Kakhovka dam