Severe flash floods in Russia's southern Krasnodar region have killed at least 99 people and affected nearly 13,000 in the area's worst natural disaster in decades, officials said Saturday.
Residents were caught completely by surprise by the force of the waters, which ripped up paving and traffic lights and flooded the ground floors of houses within minutes, witnesses and officials said.
One woman reportedly had to spend a night up a tree before being rescued from the floods caused by exceptionally heavy rainstorms.
In the district of Krymsk, the area worst hit by the disaster, officials had already discovered 88 bodies including that of a 10-year-old child, regional police spokesman Igor Zhelyabin told AFP.
Officials have not been able to explain the large number of deaths, except by saying that the disaster struck while residents were asleep.
"Everything happened at night and very quickly," the regional administration said in a statement.
Zhelyabin declined to speculate on the reasons behind the massive toll, saying Moscow-based investigators were conducting a probe.
The Russian Internet was abuzz with speculation that people died in a man-made catastrophe resulting from an open sluice gate at a water reservoir.
Authorities denied the reports.
"Unfortunately, the rumour mills works much faster than the official information," a spokeswoman for the regional governor, Anna Minkova, said on popular Echo of Moscow radio.
"No water reservoir, no gate has been opened," she said, adding that the district did not have a reservoir that might have caused the flooding.
Nine people were reported killed in the Black Sea resort town of Gelendzhik and another two in the port of Novorossiisk over the past two days, Zhelyabin said.
The victims included two woman and three men electrocuted in Gelendzhik on Friday. The authorities said they had to switch off power in the worst-affected areas to avoid more deaths.
Tatyana, a resident of Krymsk whose house, perched on a hill, was not affected by the floods, said the disaster struck unexpectedly.
"The water rose very quickly," she told AFP by phone, declining to give her last name.
"It flooded people's ground floors in five to 10 minutes, ripped out pavement kerbs and even pieces of asphalt," she said.
Local people had received no warning from the emergency services, she added.
"Many elderly people must have been asleep and probably died," she said.
"In the morning, there were boats on the neighbouring street. A woman spent the night in a tree and then was rescued."
The resort town of Gelendzhik received five months' worth of rain in 24 hours, the regional administration said.
Novorossiisk, Russia's largest port on the Black Sea, received two month's worth of rain in 24 hours.
A team had worked through the night to bring the situation under control in the port, port spokesman Mikhail Sidorov said.
"In some places the water level reached 1.5 metres (five feet)," he told AFP.
The floods and a landslide had affected the port's operations and pipeline operator Transneft had informed management that it would halt shipments of crude oil, he added.
"Vladimir Putin is regularly receiving information about the state of affairs in Kuban from the health, emergencies situations and regional development," the Kremlin said in a statement.
Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev said he had spoken by phone to both President Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and pledged everything would be done to help those affected by the floods.
"Of course, it came as a shock to us," he said. "We've never had this before."
In remarks broadcast on television, he expressed the hope that residents would not resort to looting.
"You can see from the air that the water in Gelendzhik has nearly died down but something unimaginable is happening in Krymsk," Tkachev said on Twitter as he toured the flood-hit areas.
"A rescue operation is ongoing. More bodies are being discovered," Zhelyabin said, adding he feared the death toll could still rise.
Earlier, the Krasnodar regional authorities said this was the worst flooding to hit the region in a decade.
"Non-stop rain has turned several districts of the region into an emergency zone," they said in a statement, with the floods affecting the homes of nearly 13,000 people.