Storm Battered Turkmenabat Left to Its Fate

The city of Turkmenabat is slowly recovering from the high winds and storm that swept across the eastern Lebap region on April 27. Electricity, gas, and water supplies have finally been restored to the country’s second city after a four-day blackout. There isn’t a single structure in Turkmenabat untouched by the hurricane: 3D signs at the offices of the city executive and the local airport have lost letters, while the roof of Abdy-Shukur prison has been damaged. Conscripts are still clearing rubble, roofing, fallen trees, and power lines from the grounds of kindergartens and schools. According to sources, the city morgue is overflowing, and even the corridors are full of corpses. Doctors have been forbidden from writing the storm as the cause of death, and have to declare illness instead. correspondent Oguljan Tairova reports from Turkmenabat.

One of Turkmenabat's residential districts. Slide photos right to see more

The authorities had advance warning of the storm, but wanted to avoid panic

The local executive authorities and departments of the ministries of national security and internal affairs had prior notification of the coming storm – they received a telegram from Ashgabat 7 hours before the hurricane hit. However, the leaders were afraid of widespread panic and no one took responsibility for alerting the public. They simply hid the information. As a result, at least 300 people died in Turkmenabat alone, and the ambulance service worked flat out to respond to hundreds of injuries. A doctor in the new regional hospital says that the morgue is overflowing and corpses are even lying in the corridor.

Many children died in the storm. In the first minutes of the hurricane electricity was cut to Gorogly Park (formerly Druzhba Park, it was reopened five years ago). Dozens of adults and children were stuck on the big wheel and those at the top were simply blown down. Local people thank God that the ride itself did not collapse or there would have been far more casualties, as hundreds of people were walking in the park that evening. The wind was so strong that it tore more than 100 of the park’s 120 lampposts out of their concrete settings in the ground together with their cables.

Broken bench in the park

“I’m 60 and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Bahtiyar, a Turkmenabat taxi driver, says. “The wind blew down solid brick houses like reeds. They’ve no roofs to speak of any more. The roof of market No. 5 ended up several kilometers away. In the sand settlement on the way to the new airport no building has survived unscathed.”

The lack of gas and electricity led some people to burn their furniture, or what was left of it, in the yards of their buildings so they could cook something to eat. Most of the city’s traffic lights were out of order, and on Sunday May 3 the road police were directing traffic at crossroads.

People are furious. So are the law-enforcement agencies

People are angry at the authorities’ lack of action, as they are behaving as though nothing has happened. TV and the press say nothing at all about the tragedy, while Turkmen celebrities with tens of thousands of followers on Instagram write about anything and everything but the natural disaster and its tragic consequences. Only independent outlets on the Internet and social media report the truth, so the public in Turkmenabat and the region get only crumbs of information.

There’s a lot to talk about: the city was already suffering a severe food shortage, and after the hurricane struck all the shops were closed for three days. Some were damaged and looted. Rumors that floods and an earthquake would follow the hurricane led to hundreds, if not thousands, of residents rushing to leave the city however they could, heading for the higher ground on the road to Mary. Looters made the most of the empty streets to raid local grocery stores, pharmacies, and private homes. On April 30 and May 1 people began to return home, but shops and stalls did not open until the evening of the 1st; a bottle of Oleyna sunflower oil sold for 40 manats ($2) while it had been 25-30 manats before the hurricane. On May 2, more shops and private stalls reopened and bread reappeared in the city, prompting near instant lines outside stores.

Local dental surgery. Slide photos right to see more
Grocery shop
Clean-up works

The dead and injured include many police and other law-enforcement employees. Officers share the public anger at the authorities’ inaction and the damage caused to their and their parents’ homes. Fixing a roof costs at least 30,000 manats (around $1,500), while replacing damaged furniture and household appliances will cost at least as much, if not more. Sellers of building supplies have hiked prices: a six-meter sheet of corrugated roofing costs 800 manats ($40), while a couple of days ago it was 240 manats ($12).

A friend from my student days who is now an officer in one of Turkmenabat’s law-enforcement agencies says that vehicles from the president’s fleet in Ashgabat are arriving at the local railroad station as though President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has been persuaded by his entourage to visit Turkmenabat, following the example of his Uzbek counterpart who visited Bukhara on the day of the storm.

“He shouldn’t show his face here if he wants to get back to Ashgabat in one piece,” my former course mate says. “If we had weapons, we would give him a welcome to remember…”

He said that signaling problems led to freight trains colliding. Support teams were dispatched from Mary to Turkmenabat to help lift the freight cars back onto the rails.

Taxi driver Bahtiyar shares my course mate’s anger. He says the authorities have done nothing – neither before the disaster nor afterwards. The Green Bazaar in the city center resembles a market in one of the world’s poorest countries: it’s filthy, full of rubble, packed with people, and completely insanitary.

“It’s difficult to get gas as there’s only one filling station open in the city. The power cuts mean it can’t take card payments, and where can we get cash when the ATMs aren’t working?” Bahtiyar asks. “It’s the authorities’ duty to help the public at a time like this; if they’ve taken on responsibility for the people, then they should do their jobs properly!”

The April tragedy has shown that Turkmenistan is not prepared for natural disasters

The residents of Turkmenabat are reviving their city themselves. Conscripts are getting some state institutions, for example kindergartens and schools, back on their feet, clearing their grounds of piles of garbage. Teachers from the schools have been told to feed the conscripts; even here the authorities cannot manage without involving public sector workers and making them pay out of their own pockets. As of May 2 not one state institution was operating – all employees had been mobilized to clear the city streets, housing estates, and yards. Lessons have been cancelled in schools until Monday May 4, but roofs and buildings are unlikely to have been repaired by then – the damage is substantial.

Soldiers cleaning up a local kindergarten. Slide photo right
School No.11 in Turkmenabat

“God forbid war should break out. We would have to throw up our hands and surrender,” a state employee says. “The authorities have abandoned us to our fate. Sort out your own problems. We’ll sort them out, but we won’t forget your response.”

The hurricane in Turkmenabat also damaged the buildings of the new library, the Ruhyyet Palace, and branches of the Central Bank. Only the new mosque survived unscathed.