June 13th was a difficult day for Tbilisi. The river Vere, little more than a small creek running off of the side of the many hills surrounding the city, flooded. A landslide released water pooling at the top of the hill, while simultaneously plugging the subterranean pipe that directed the river under a densely populated neighborhood. A week later, at least nineteen people have been confirmed dead. Dozens of homes have been destroyed and survivors are temporarily living in hotels with the support of the government. The Tbilisi zoo was destroyed and as many as 300 animals have died. Many were shot by soldiers and police after they had been swept out their cages, despite the efforts of trained zoo keepers with tranquilizer guns. A tiger supposedly still eludes capture and attacked a man this past week. Cars remain completely buried nose down in the mud. Today, private citizens continue to pick up shovels and tackle the millions of dollars of damage head-on, often without leadership. More than one million laris have been raised by everyday people and contributed to a survivor fund. To put that in perspective, many Georgians are considered lucky to have a monthly salary of 300 lari or around 130 US dollars.
I am fortunate enough to live far from the site of the flooding on a slopping hill in old town where I was unaware that the thunderstorm raging Saturday night was wreaking such havoc. As I relaxed Sunday by taking a hike in the hills above my apartment, I was blissfully unaware of the potential of running into an escaped animal. It wasn’t till I started my walk to work on Monday that I became aware something was wrong. One of the two busy highways that border the Mt'k'vari river, a large waterway that cuts through the heart of Tbilisi, was completely closed and unrecognizable. The asphalt was covered in mud and sand to the point it looked like a grand dirt road from Roman days. Tbilisi’s already atrocious traffic was even worse and, for the first time, I was able to cross the gridlocked streets without a life-risking sprint. Upon my arrival to work, my colleagues at the office filled me in. I looked online and saw unbelievable pictures of people herding a hippo out of freedom’s square, bears clinging to air conditioners on the side of apartment buildings, and ruined homes.
During the time since the flood, I’ve learned a great deal. First, the infrastructure project that required part of the river Vere to be routed underground never had an environmental impact study. Over fifty years ago an eerily similar event occurred when the river flooded destroying the Tbilisi zoo for the first time. Years ago, Tbilisi acquired the rights to the hillsides surrounding the city through an action not unlike eminent domain. Since acquiring the land the city has rarely enforced laws restricting tree cutting, which has weakened the top soil of many hillsides. Mudslides are not uncommon in the region. In the aftermath of the disaster, the government is unsure how to proceed and many private citizens are simply doing whatever they think is helpful. My own co-workers raised funds and met with survivors to ask what they needed. Many had received food and clothing, but not the little essentials like over the counter medicines or underwear or the intangibles like toys to help calm distressed and confused children.
The outpouring of support from locals and businesses is unique. Georgians are exceptionally charitable but usually through the church or in support of family relations. Many have gone online for the first time to try crowdfunding or organized impromptu volunteer groups to help with clean up. It remains to be seen how the flood may lead to a different sort of charitable giving in Georgia and perhaps a new sense of volunteerism. The new government will investigate the works of the old, hopefully to provide a solution and avoid another flood in fifty years’ time. In the meantime, many families are unsure when they can go home and others are not sure they want to return to a place that has been swept away.