Tbilisi Flood: Digging Hope from the Debris

Saturday evening June 13 exposed Tbilisi to a torrential downpour.

While many residents sat back and rode out the storm in comfort, others were less lucky. At the time of going to press it has been reported that 20 people were killed in the flood, including three zoo workers.

Dozens of families had their homes destroyed in the downpour, and the Georgian Minister of Finance Nodar Khaduri told reporters that the damage is estimated at 40 million USD.

Zoo animals escape

Many animals drowned in the muddy waters which flooded their enclosures. Others, including a hippopotamus, lions, tigers, bears, and wolves, escaped from the zoo. Begi the hippopotamus was quickly captured and is now residing in the elephant enclosure on high ground, and the predators are being housed temporarily in a municipal facility.

Conflicting information also spread this week on both social and foreign media regarding the shooting of several of the predators, including numerous wolves and the people’s favourite white lion- Shumba. The Tbilisi Zoo’s Administration was quick to refute allegations of animal cruelty.

“Tranquilizer darts were used in most cases but even the strongest tranquilizer can take 4 - 5 minutes to knock an animal out. In some cases, where the animal was aggressive, we could not wait those 4 - 5 minutes. It was a matter of citizen safety,” said Tbilisi Zoo director, Zurab Gurielidze.

An example of such tragic circumstances was seen at lunchtime of June 17th when an escaped white tiger killed two civilians when they disturbed it in the storehouse where it had been hiding since Sunday. It was quickly put down by armed police.

As the entire location was covered with water and mud, it was impossible to determine the exact number of animals who survived the flood. An official statement claiming that all predators had been accounted for was withdrawn the next day following the tiger attack, with zoo director Gurielidze claiming responsibility. Protesters were quick to show their support for Gurielidze, claiming that he was being framed for the government’s own failings. PM Garibashvili reassured angry citizens that the zoo director would not be held accountable.

It is said that a second tiger and a hyena remain on the loose.

Recovering the dead

Particular attention was paid to flood damage suffered by the Vake-Saburtalo highway in Vere valley and Tbilisi Zoo, where three employees were killed and a number of vehicles were swept along the road by the flood of water, mud and debris. 40 families lost their homes and many had to be rescued from their roofs. The basements of blocks of flats, some of which had only been completed recently, were flooded and the day following the flood some people were asked to leave their buildings for safety.

Those whose houses were swept away lost everything.

As of going to press, 10 of the reported 24 missing people have returned home and 20 are confirmed dead. The oldest victim was 77, the youngest at going to press is 22. Three people are still missing.

People lose their homes

“This wasn’t a gradual rising of the water level. The waves came all at once. Sweeping up absolutely everything that stood in the way,” one of the flood victims told Georgia Today.

300 people were left homeless following the flood which swept away many structures and severely damaged others. Aid agencies rapidly gathered basic essentials for them as people began to bring clothes and other donated items. At present the victims are being housed in hotels but aid is on the way. Construction company Metra Development has offered free flats to all families whose houses cannot be repaired to living standard. Further, the Patriarchate is donating 100,000 GEL and offering to collaborate with City Hall to house the largest homeless family. Donations from the general public around the globe currently top 15 mln GEL.

Who’s to blame?

“Because of the long hours of rain and the landslide, the flood couldn’t have been completely avoided. However, if the underground culverts had been of a bigger diameter this wouldn’t have turned into such a large-scale catastrophe,” said Tbilisi Mayor, David Narmania, in an interview with Imedi TV.

The Georgian Patriarch, to the disbelief of many of his supporters, blamed the Communists who constructed the zoo using funds raised from the melting of church and monastery bells, so committing a sin against God which has now been revenged. Many locals blamed poor infrastructure and planning.

The fact is that the flood is Tbilisi’s worst in recent memory. Yet it is not the first, nor was it unexpected.

The talks about the dangers of River Vere date back several years to the time the previous government decided to cut a new road connecting Heroes’ Square to Vake-Saburtalo Street.

Well-known urbanist, Niko Kakhetelidze, spoke out about the aforementioned threats on Maestro TV’s “Us”, in 2012.

“The new street which was cut connecting Heroes’ Square to Vake-Saburtalo Str. resulted in putting the River Vere in a kind of a sarcophagus. This is unacceptable, as one day Vere may overflow and sweep up the whole area surrounding Heroes’ Square. It took us not more than 30 minutes [of seeing the plan] to realize the threat,” he said. This week he spoke out once more to categorically accuse the previous government of misconduct.

According to numerous geologists the reason the epicenter of the flood appeared near the Tbilisi Zoo territory is that when the new road and the overpass were built, River Vere was enclosed within narrow tunnels. Therefore, when the wave of water, generated from a landslide in Akhaldaba, hit the area, bringing trees and debris with it to block the tunnels, the water, under pressure, burst through to the surface.

Geomorphologist George Gotsiridze blames both the force of nature and man’s ignorance in urbanization. In an exclusive interview with Georgia Today (See Page 8 of this week’s issue) he also lamented the lack of Early Warning Systems: “Unfortunately Georgia is lacking in Early Warning Systems and with regards the concept of spatial development of the river Vere, the cluster of buildings there has been historically developed in an incorrect way since Soviet times. A Disaster Management program should be developed urgently.”

Urbanist Kakhetelidze also suggested the number of new constructions which have been built in the gorge of River Vere were a trigger to the disaster.

Representative of the “Green Movement” Nino Chkhobadze said: “This happened because geological research wasn’t carried out, because the road [connecting Heroes’ Square to Vake-Saburtalo Str.] was cut not according to standards [Editor: it has been rumoured that the highway was constructed hurriedly using geological data collected in the Soviet period]; that is why they had to cover up the mountains with nets, as severe rockfalls soon began.”

1960s flood

What is interesting is that the River Vere also overflowed in 1960. The writings of Georgian writer Edisher Kipiani speak of a deluge of rain which caused the River Vere to overflow and kill every single animal in Tbilisi Zoo, except for the hippo. He does not mention human casualties or flooding of other locations.

Why hasn’t Tbilisi Zoo moved to its newly-owned lands?

According to the Tbilisi Zoo Administration, the reason for the delayed movement is the extremely high cost. The zoo’s representatives stated on Facebook that moving to a new location would cost Euro 100-500 million, which simply cannot be allocated at this time, though the City Hall announced this week that they do plan to move the zoo to the Tbilisi Sea area. Rumours abound that Georgian billionaire and ex-PM, Bidzina Ivanishvili will cough up the funds to build a new zoo. Whether he does or not is yet to be seen but what can be said is that the people are behind the move and funds are being raised as we speak to benefit the surviving animals.

The people pull together

Within the first few hours of the disaster the area was filled with rescue workers and, as the sky lightened, with hundreds of thousands of volunteers of every age and from every walk of life. Never had Tbilisi society witnessed such a coming together of people wanting to help; knee-deep in mud, spades in hand, at first they dug away the mud that caked the roads, re-opening one of the main arteries of the capital in just 48 hours. Then they started on the debris, in their hundreds loading trees and the ruins of cars and up-stream houses into trucks.

And when further eager volunteers were turned back with thanks on Sunday afternoon, the fundraising began. People brought clothes, bedding and other day-to-day essentials to municipal centres for those left homeless; banks and other organizations offered set sums or material help and the general populace raised $2M in just two days.

If you want to donate to the official Tbilisi Zoo fund, please use the following account numbers:


JSC “TBC Bank”, Saburtalo Branch



BEN’ S ACCOUNT - GE91TB7898336080100004



JSC “TBC Bank”, Saburtalo Branch



BEN’S Account: GE11 TB78 9833 6180 1000 05



JSC “TBC Bank”, Saburtalo Branch



BEN’S Account: GE81 TB78 9833 6180 1000 06

A Georgia Today analysis by Katie Ruth Davies, Beqa Kirtava and Joseph Larsen

18 June 2015 23:02