TBILISI, Georgia—A massive flood hit the Georgian capital of Tbilisi after heavy rains Saturday night, unleashing scenes reminiscent of disaster movie—or a biblical epic—as wild animals escaped from the city zoo and roamed the streets. Many are still at large.
The devastation began when a small, barely noticeable stream called the Vere River erupted suddenly as a raging torrent. Nearby a new highway system connected to a main hub in the middle of the city was completely demolished. So far 12 people have been reported dead with the numbers expected to rise. At least 24 are missing and more than 35 are injured. The right bank of the Mtkvari River, which runs through the heart of the ancient city, cannot be reached form the left bank and cars there with residents trapped inside may remain in the river.
Electricity and gas lines have been cut off to one nearby village, which remains completely isolated due to blocked roads. Another was devastated after a massive landslide. More than 40 families have been left homeless and 22,000 people have been left without electricity. The Georgian government is allocating $4.5 million to Tbilisi City Hall to cover damages and ongoing search and rescue operations. The city has sustained an estimated $18 million in damages and July 15 has been declared a “day of sorrow” for small south Caucasus country.
The Tbilisi zoo was right in the path of the flood. Walls were knocked down and cages broken. Three zoo workers rushed to the zoo to try to rescue the animals, but were drowned as they struggled to save and contain the beasts. With cars floating down streets in the lower parts of the city, some 30 large and potentially dangerous wild animals—lions, tigers, bears wolves and even a hippopotamus—escaped from their enclosures. Many other animals, including an albino tiger, lions and several bears, were shot by police or drowned in the flood. Others still remain at large in densely populated areas of the city with reports of sightings throughout.
Two bears were caught as far out as the city’s suburbs. One rogue crocodile reportedly remains inside the zoo making part of the grounds unsafe for recue workers. The government has not issued an official green light to kill the animals but many are being hunted down because some people are convinced that tranquilizer darts are not effective enough. A lion cub reportedly was found shot in the head near the zoo grounds. So far three lion, four tigers and a bunch of wolved have been killed.
Last night the escaped hippopotamus made its way to what was once one the main interstate hub of the city, known as Hero’s Square. The waters have rendered the entire highway system unusable. After taking several tranquilizer darts, the hippopotamus continued to walk lethargically around the area, even eating leaves from a tree with the darts still in its neck. It was then escorted back to the zoo.
Because of the escaped zoo animals and other dangers from the flood, residents are being warned not to go outdoors or drive in various areas of the city. Many residential streets and roads have been cut off. Last night as people returned home from nightclubs at least one group was met with frantic police officers telling them to run because a lion was approaching.
Giving the situation an even more morbid feel, hillside graveyards reportedly have been unearthed and local residents are searching through the tombstones to check on the state of loved ones long deceased.
An event that already seemed to be of biblical proportions found even further absurdity, when Ilia II, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, declared that the Tbilisi Zoo was “founded on sin” and that this is the reason for these events. The Georgian Pope claimed that Georgian churches were robbed of valuables during Communist times and that this funding was used to build the zoo. He is demanding the official closure of the zoo and the opening of a new zoo “not founded on sin.”
Further rainfall is expected tonight and even more tomorrow, which could then result in dangerous landslides. The government of this small country plans to seed and shell rain clouds if necessary, but the Georgian Minister of Environment has warned that the flood could soon be repeated.
If this keeps up, someone may start building an ark.