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Under fire and armed with shovels, Ukrainians fight to reclaim flooded city of Kherson

As Russian troops shell them from across the river, city workers dressed in body armour are struggling to clear the mess left behind in Kherson, Ukraine by flooding caused by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam.

About 20 per cent of the city remained underwater on Thursday

Volunteers haul a woman on a stretcher through a flooded street.

The day the water started rising in war-scarred Kherson, Lora Mysiyan, one of the southern Ukrainian city's hydrologists, knew she had the wrong outfit on. She was wearing a dress.

That didn't stop her from wading into the cold, murky waters of the Dnipro River as it burst its banks and began swallowing whole neighbourhoods. Roughly 20 per cent of the municipality was still underwater on Thursday, according to the United Nations.

The first few hours of the disaster — triggered by the destruction of the Soviet-era Kakhovka dam on June 6 — remain etched in Mysiyan's mind.

She said she couldn't believe it when she was told by her boss that the dam upstream from Kherson — a city with a pre-war population of 289,000 — had been destroyed.

People walk through muddy streets in bright sunshine.

Mysiyan, 56, told CBC News she grabbed her tools and went down to the riverbank to begin measuring. At that point, there was already water in the nearby square.

Civilians were gathering. She said she knew it was bad but couldn't show fear.

"We did not know what the level would be. We were running from point to point," she told CBC News Thursday through a translator. At one point, she said, she had to "take up" the hem of her dress as she pushed through the floodwaters.

"I was not wearing trousers that time. And I was thinking all the time [about] how will I look. No matter [how] this is happening … everyone can see that I am not panicking."

Mysiyan said the water rose so swiftly, her normal system of measurement became useless. She took to marking the height of the water on buildings with a red waterproof marker.

"I had to devise my own system," she said.

A woman wearing muddy boots takes notes.

Over the next several days, Mysiyan charted the flood and kept authorities informed as water rushed up the shell-cratered streets. She often did so in the face of artillery fire from the opposite side of the river, where Russian forces have been dug in since last fall after being driven out of the portion of the city on the left bank of the Dnipro.

As the water level began to drop, she rescued a black dog from the soupy mud that now coats the streets. He follows her everywhere now.

Mysiyan and another colleague continue to chart the receding waters. She's trailed by an army of municipal workers — clad in body armour that is often draped in orange construction vets — who shovel away the muck, hose down the streets and slowly reclaim the city block by block.

The battle to clean up Kherson is happening under constant shell fire.

People in body armour shovel mud off a sidewalk.

As they push the sludge downhill, the workers advance toward the Russian-occupied territory on the other side of the river.

Rescue and evacuation operations continue to seek those trapped in parts of the city still underwater. Dozens of evacuees and a handful of hospital patients left the city by train on Thursday.

An elderly couple, Oleksandr Manakovskiy and Nataliya Bilousova, were transferred to the central station by ambulance with the help of the Red Cross.

Sitting in the back of the vehicle, Manakovskiy said he was frightened when he saw the water reach his doorstep. Once on the train late Thursday afternoon, he said, he felt safer but worried about where he was going and what would happen next.

"I don't know what to expect since I haven't even seen what's out there," he said, referring to other parts of Ukraine.

Like many other elderly residents, Manakovskiy stoically and stubbornly endured the Russian occupation last year. Many who remained in the city were too sick or too poor to leave, or were simply bent on remaining in their homes.

Svitlana Kovtun, 54, counted herself among those who were determined to stay during the occupation and hold on to what they'd spent their lives building.

And then came the flood.

"It is really painful," Kovtun told CBC News outside of a humanitarian shelter. "I'm trying not to think about all this. All my house went under the water, everything we had gained through life."

She is now staying at the home of a friend who fled the city.

International aid agencies taking part in the relief effort are still grappling with the magnitude of the disaster. They say the loss of the city's reservoir will have a staggering impact on the day-to-day lives of people throughout the region.

An aerial view of a flooded city.

"The situation here in southern Ukraine right now is dramatic, especially because of the lack of water," said Saviano Abreu, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ukraine.

"The Kakhovka reservoir was the source of drinking water for around 700,000 people, not only in Kherson, but is also the principal source in (nearby) Mykolaiv. So 700,000 people are now at risk of not having enough drinking water in their homes every day because of the disaster."

As bad as the situation is on the Ukrainian side of the river, Abreu said, it might be even worse in Russian-controlled territory.

"We don't have enough access. We don't have any means to verify any information that we receive," he said.

WATCH | In Kherson, Ukrainians face both floods and Russian shelling:

Kherson residents measure flood damage, clean up following Kakhovka dam breach

8 hours ago

Duration 3:15

The war-weary Ukrainian city of Kherson is still dealing with massive flooding and damage more than a week after an important dam collapsed. CBC News has a team on the ground who spoke with those struggling to pick up the pieces.

Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy has criticized the response of international aid agencies to the crisis in the occupied territory. Abreau said he understands why.

"This is a desperate situation for everyone," he said. "And I wouldn't expect less from the government to put pressure on international organizations, including us, to ensure that people that are in a desperate situation, or dramatic situation, can get the support that they need."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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