Flash floods deluged Russia's southern Krasnodar, killing at least 134 people -- many feared drowned in their beds -- in the region'sworst natural disaster in decades, officials and witnesses said Saturday.
President Vladimir Putin inspected the damage by helicopter, the Kremlin said, amid recriminations from residents who accused authorities of abandoning them.
Television footage showed torrents of brown flood water gushing along streets in the worst-hit town of Krymsk past blanket-covered bodies.
Residents were caught by surprise by the sheer force of the waters, which ripped up pavements and traffic lights and flooded buildings.
In Krymsk, some people woke in the middle of the night to find water pouring in, trapping them in their homes. One woman had to spend the night up a tree before being rescued.
Authorities estimated that up to 13,000 people had been affected in the Krymsk district.
"Our house was flooded to the ceiling, we could not open the door because of the water, so we broke the window to climb out," Krymsk pensioner Lidiya Polinina told AFP by telephone.
"I put my five-year-old grandson on the roof of our submerged car, and then we somehow climbed up into the attic. I don't know how we managed to survive," she said, adding that they had received no warning or assistance.
Officials said at least 123 of the bodies had been recovered in the Krymsk area, including a 10-year-old child, but were unable to explain the scale of the toll there, saying the floods were caused by torrential rains.
Polinina said her elderly neighbour had died after becoming trapped by the flood waters.
"She was paralysed. She couldn't get out of the house," she told AFP.
"Everything has been destroyed," she added. "We need help pumping water out of the house, we have no drinking water."
The town, which has a population of 57,000, lies about 200 kilometres (125 miles) northwest of the Black Sea resort town of Sochi where Russia is hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 2014.
Krymsk was still without power on Saturday, an AFP correspondent said from the scene. Water marks indicated that the water rose as high as seven metres (22 feet).
Officials said the disaster struck as residents slept after the level of the local Bakanka river rose overnight Friday to Saturday.
"Everything happened at night and very quickly," the regional administration said in a statement.
The Russian Internet was meanwhile abuzz with speculation that the flooding was a man-made catastrophe resulting from the opening of a sluice gate at a mountain reservoir. Authorities denied the reports.
"I see that somebody is actively promoting the nonsensical story about letting the water out on Krymsk from the water reservoir," Krasnodar region governor Alexander Tkachev wrote on Twitter, demanding that people stop spreading "stupid" rumours.
A Krymsk resident who gave her name as Tatyana told AFP by telephone the disaster struck unexpectedly.
"The water rose very quickly.... It flooded people's ground floors in five to 10 minutes, ripped out pavement kerbs and even pieces of asphalt," she said.
Local people had received no warning from the emergency services, she added.
"In the morning, there were boats on the neighbouring street. A woman spent the night in a tree and then was rescued," she said.
The resort town of Gelendzhik received five months' worth of rain in 24 hours, the regional administration said.
Russian Railways said it had to suspend train traffic due to "difficult weather conditions" in the area, delaying dozens of trains.
Novorossiisk saw two months' worth of rain in 24 hours.
A team had worked through the night to bring the situation under control at the port, port spokesman Mikhail Sidorov said.
The floods had affected the port's operations and pipeline operator Transneft had informed management that it would halt shipments of crude oil, he added.
Krasnodar regional police said they went on high alert at nightfall to "patrol the streets and protect people's property from looters".
Image from Russia's Interior Ministry, via AFP