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‘Everything is drowning.’ Nova Kakhovka dam collapse brings added danger to frontline city of Kherson

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Nadejda Chernishova breathes a sigh of relief as she steps off a rubber dinghy, moments after being rescued from her flooded home in Kherson.

“I’m not afraid now, but it was scary in my home,” the 65-year-old retiree said. “You don’t know where the water is going, and it was coming from all sides.”

Her house in one of the lower lying districts of Kherson was flooded after the Nova Kakhovka dam, 58 kilometers (36 miles) up the Dnipro river in Russian-occupied Ukraine, was destroyed earlier on Tuesday.

“[The water] went up in an instant,” she added. “In the morning there was nothing.”

Chernishova left most of her small world behind, bringing only what she was able to muster: two suitcases and her most prized possession.

“This is my cat Sonechka, a beauty,” she said, lifting the lid of a small her pet carrier and revealing a frightened animal. “She is scared, she is a domestic cat who has never been outside.”

Chernishova is one of hundreds being evacuated by Ukrainian authorities in Kherson, where the water has spread across several blocks and into the center of the city, cutting off some areas entirely.

Prokudin, who has been overseeing rescue efforts in towns and cities downstream from Nova Kakhovka, said the operation has become more difficult with time as flood waters continue to rise.

“If in the morning we could do it with cars, then with trucks, now we see that big cars can no longer pass,” he explained. “The water has risen so much that we are now using boats. About eight boats of various types are currently working to evacuate people from the area.”

The search and rescue operation in Kherson remained in full swing on Wednesday.

The people coming off the boats were visibly shaken by the ordeal, with some breaking down into tears as they finally reached dry land. The animals also seemed distressed, constantly howling and meowing as operations were ongoing.

Several areas that were accessible on foot on Tuesday became submerged underwater, with some locations flooded up to four meters deep. There is, however, a sense from authorities that water levels, although still rising, are now doing so at a slower pace.

The war is ever present and Kherson remains very much a frontline city.

Outgoing and incoming artillery including rockets and mortars could be heard every hour throughout the day on Tuesday, and then through the night into Wednesday morning.

The Ukrainian government nonetheless promised the rumbles of war would not affect search and rescue operations.

“We have to keep going even if the shelling is ongoing as you can hear,” interim interior minister Ihor Klymenko told journalists at the scene, as artillery fired of in the distance. “Our people have the necessary protective equipment.”

“It is always very dangerous here. This checkpoint is usually under shelling,” Produkin said. “You see a crowd of people and I think the hit will happen soon.”

Kyiv and Moscow have traded accusations over the destruction of the dam but neither side has provided concrete proof that the other is culpable. But while responsibility for the incident remains as murky as the debris-filled waters now flowing down the Dnipro, its impact is much clearer.

Before the dam collapsed, a potential Ukrainian offensive across the Dnipro to the Russian-held side of the river was unlikely due to difficulty of crossing the river. That seems almost impossible now. Both sides have been severely impacted by the collapse — even more so on the Russian side — leaving the terrain in very difficult condition.

And as she packs her belongings into a car, Chernishova is perfectly clear on who she blames – even if Russia denies it.

The Russians “flooded us,” she said. “Everything is drowning.”

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