After the flood
Zoo animals roaming the streets of Georgia’s capital came to signify the Tbilisi flood disaster of 13th June 2015. In issue #19 of Delayed Gratification, Matthew Lee looked behind the incredible images to find a city attempting to rebuild itself
13th June 2015 (Taken from: #19)
“How did I feel?” George Gvarjaladze cannot help but laugh at the question. “I felt fucking scared. It was Titanic. The shock, the panic, everyone trying to survive. I saw my neighbours trying to escape, swim out of the dirty mud-water with trees and bushes and cars.”
The rainfall over Tbilisi was unusually heavy on the night of 13th June. But Gvarjaladze, better known as music producer and composer Gvaji, was unperturbed. He sat in his underwear in his rented home studio, listening to music and preparing for an early morning flight. He’d insulated his studio against outside noise and so he and his wife barely heard the roar of the River Vere, usually barely more than a trickling stream, bursting its banks and advancing towards their front door.
“My first thought when I saw the water was ‘what equipment can I save?’” Gvarjaladze recalls. “There was lots of cabling on the floor and I felt electricity on my bare feet. I managed to switch off the main power supply but then I was in darkness and the water was suddenly up to about a metre. I couldn’t get to my phone, and I had a pile of cash on my table. I couldn’t get to that either.”
Gvarjaladze and his wife escaped the building. “There was now a metre and a half of water and we had to move 70 metres around the building to reach a higher level,” he explains. “There was a high voltage transformer powering the building and when I saw its light I realised electrocution was possible. The water was so muddy, thick like honey; it was hard to stand up against its flow. If it had carried us to the river we would have gone down a waterfall along with the trees and the cars. Instant execution.”
They reached higher ground and Gvarjaladze’s wife, who had managed to hold on to her phone, called for help. Meanwhile, a short way down the surging river, dozens of wild animals were making their escape from the city zoo. Tigers, lions, bears and wolves were now loose on the streets of Tbilisi.
“My friend called to tell me and I thought she was joking,” says Tbilisi Zoo’s public relations manager Mzia Sharashidze. “I went on Facebook and saw that the floods were really happening so I tried to call our director, Zurab Gurielidze, but his phone wasn’t working. I went straight to the zoo but I wasn’t able to enter for several hours.”
When she finally got in, at around 5am, she saw a scene of devastation. Two-thirds of the zoo was covered in water and the majority of enclosures had been destroyed. Zurab Gurielidze and his wife Natia had been trapped on the second floor of a building but managed to survive. Not all his staff were as fortunate. “The three colleagues that drowned had been zookeepers for more than 25 years,” Sharashidze says. “One of them didn’t have his own flat so he moved to the zoo grounds. The other two were a husband and wife who lived at the zoo. She was a nurse, she cared for newborns at night. Nobody ever expected that something like this could happen.”
Half an hour before the Vere burst its banks, Maka Meshveliani and her friends had been driving through Heroes’ Square, the site of some of the worst flood damage. “I barely made it home,” she recalls. “There were eight of us in the car and the rain was incredibly heavy. The water levels on the road were already very high. It clearly wasn’t normal but we kept encouraging each other that it was OK and we tried to stay calm. We stopped the car at one point, hoping the rain would get better, but it didn’t so we thought we’d take the chance and keep driving. I made it home, went to bed, and then woke up to the awful news.” Meshveliani, who works at the National Democratic Institute in Tbilisi, felt an urge to do something to help. She went online and launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the recovery effort.
The floods left 20 people dead. Dozens more saw their homes destroyed. But the images that brought news of the Tbilisi floods to the world’s attention weren’t of flattened houses, overturned trucks or rescue workers wading through knee-high sludge. They were of a bear, wandering through the wreckage on the banks of the Vere; of a white tiger, being carried off on a stretcher after being shot by police; of a hippopotamus, trudging through the mud in front of the Swatch store, a tranquiliser dart lodged below its left ear. The foreign press made references to the apocalypse and Noah’s Ark, while dozens of memes did the rounds online: in one, Vladimir Putin rode to the rescue on a brown bear; another referenced the movie Jumanji, in which wild animals take over a family home.
Some people thought that the foreign media was more interested in animals than in people. What can I say? It was unusual to see a hippo in front of the Swatch shop”
“People got frustrated that the international media didn’t seem to be taking it very seriously,” says Meshveliani, whose Indiegogo campaign ‘Help Tbilisi Recover from Flooding’ raised more than 800 percent of its target, with half the money donated by rock band Placebo, who performed in Tbilisi in July. “There were children, pregnant women and people with disabilities severely affected by the floods. One of my colleagues found a dead body. But I suppose you can’t blame the media [for focusing on the escaped animals]. I mean, they were roaming the streets, it was kind of funny.
For the first two days there was no time for jokes but then the black humour kicked in. It was a way of keeping our sanity and coping at a time when I couldn’t go outside without wondering if I’d be attacked by a lion. But the personal stories were missing from some of the coverage.”
The tranquilised hippo, Begi, became an instant symbol of the recovery effort. He’s on the front page of Meshveliani’s campaign, dozily wandering back to the zoo, pushed from behind by volunteers. He now sits in an elephant cage, waiting to be moved to a warmer enclosure so he can survive the winter. “I know some people thought that the foreign media was more interested in animals than in people,” says Tbilisi Zoo’s Mzia Sharashidze. “What can I say? It was unusual to see a hippo in front of the Swatch shop and sometimes journalists make commercial decisions to grab people’s attention. For us the biggest tragedy was losing our colleagues, our friends.”
Sharashidze barely had time to read the headlines. She says that she was so busy she didn’t sleep for three or four days. In addition to fielding hundreds of calls from media (“while I was taking one phone call another 20 or 30 people tried to get through”) she had to handle a situation which saw police officers occasionally shooting animals on sight rather than tranquilizing them; there was uproar when a much-loved white lion, Shumba, was found shot dead. She also had to tackle the problem of fakes on the internet – a photo of a naked man running away from a three-tonne hippo, a video of a crocodile swimming down a main road.
“The fakes caused panic,” she says. “People were seeing cats and dogs and thinking they were lions and wolves.” But it turned out that the public had every right to be scared. Four days after the floods – and two days after prime minister Irakli Garibashvili declared that no more animals posed a threat to the public – a tiger mauled a 40-year-old man to death outside a Tbilisi warehouse. “I felt like I was going to have a heart attack when I heard about the attack,” says Sharashidze. “I said to myself ‘Oh my God, what is going on here?’”
The tiger attack fuelled debate over who was to blame for the deaths and the destruction. Patriarch Ilia II, the spiritual leader of the Georgian orthodox church, offered the suggestion that God was taking retribution against the communists who in 1927 built the zoo from the proceeds of melted-down church bells and crosses. Others asked a more pertinent question: what was the structural impact of the construction of the Chabua-Amirejibi highway (known locally as the ‘New Road’), built by the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili, which ran alongside the Vere and cut straight through the zoo? Critics drew attention to a 2012 TV show in which urban planner Niko Kakhetelidze spoke of an increased risk of flooding if work on the highway went ahead.
Zoo director Zurab Gurielidze also felt the pressure. When prime minister Garibashvili apologised for misleading people, he blamed zoo management for providing him with inaccurate information. Gurielidze acknowledged that his team had made an error, but when he was taken to the police station for questioning, hundreds of people gathered outside government buildings in a spontaneous show of support. Mzia Sharashidze says that public opinion remains firmly behind the zoo and its staff.
Maka Meshveliani thinks that the authorities should have been better prepared to handle the disaster. “A country that has lived through a number of civil wars and the war with Russia [in 2008] should have a better crisis response mechanism and better institutional memory,” she says. “I was surprised to see such a lack of organisation. I’m not qualified to assess the overall government response, but in terms of the escaped zoo animals it was clear that there was a lack of coordination between the various government agencies – it’s not the responsibility of the zoo director to account for the animals on the street. It was pretty chaotic. There was no curfew. We didn’t know which areas were safe, or whether we could leave our homes or offices.”
Ana Ardelean, head of the international relations department at Tbilisi City Hall, insists that local government performed well under the circumstances. “Engagement from City Hall began the moment the floods began,” she says. “Everybody from the mayor to the regular department workers was on the streets working. We were barely in the office.”
Should local government have been better prepared? “I don’t think anybody could prepare for something like that,” Ardelean replies. “The Vere is a tiny river. This was record-breaking rain and the previous week there had been a mudslide and the water was already saturated. The way that events happened, one after the other, nobody could have prepared for. Some people blamed the roads but experts have said since that nobody could have accounted for this happening.”
For a country that doesn’t have much experience of self-organising, partly because of the Soviet Union mentality, it was quite remarkable”
Ardelean does accept, however, that there were some longstanding problems with city planning. “A similar flood happened in the 1960s and that area was flooded. Permits shouldn’t have been given to people to rebuild there, although there were also houses built without permission. We have decided that there will be no repopulation of the area and we also have a plan to introduce a flooding early-warning system.”
Ardelean says that those left homeless by the flooding will be compensated. “The prime minister said right away that nobody will be left behind. Different levels of damage will receive different levels of compensation but it’s a big challenge to generate all the money we need. We’ve had to divert money from other programmes to the disaster fund and the EU has promised up to €3 million to buy houses for the affected families. We’ve already started to give people buy-outs, houses or compensation. Some people are in hotels, some are in homes.”
“The authorities have done nothing meaningful for me,” says George Gvarjaladze, who took out a bank loan to buy a new flat. “I got no financial help. When I tried to move my car – although it’s not a car any more, it’s metal garbage – after the floods, the authorities wanted to charge me for transportation. I lost around $80,000 worth of audio equipment plus my personal things. I had no insurance.”
He is still angry. “I had no idea that flooding was possible and I believe that government did know it was possible. And if they didn’t know, well, that’s even worse. What the hell are they doing?”
There’s one thing just about everybody agrees on – the floods brought out the best in Tbilisians. On the morning of 14th June thousands of people put on wellies and gloves and began working to clean up the mess. “The community spirit was truly unprecedented,” says Maka Meshveliani. “There were around 20,000 volunteers on the streets.
For a country that doesn’t have much experience of self -organising, partly because of the Soviet Union mentality, it was quite remarkable.”
Mzia Sharashidze agrees. “We got so much help from volunteers,” she says. “People really cared about us and supported us.” Her team hopes the zoo will reopen in early autumn before relocating shortly afterwards to a part of the city on higher ground, but it will take a long time to fully recover its animal population.
“The last number I heard was 274,” says Sharashidze, confirming that around half of the Tibilisi zoo’s animals either drowned or were shot dead by police in the days after the flood. “We treated our animals like they were our children. We knew their stories, their histories. It all feels like a bad dream.”
We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #19 of Delayed Gratification
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