TBILISI, Georgia — An Israeli delegation of veterinarians landed in Georgia Tuesday to assist local efforts to save the city’s zoo following a flash flood earlier this week that killed at least 15 people.
The small Vere River running through the capital city of Tbilisi burst its banks early Sunday after hours of torrential rain, paralyzing the city of 1.2 million residents and wrecking its zoo with animals escaping into the city.
More than half the zoo’s around 600 animals, birds and fish had perished, a spokeswoman said.
The Israeli delegation, led by Dr. Nili Avni-Magen from the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and Dr. Yigal Horovitz from the Ramat Gan Safari, brought antibiotics, sedatives and other medications for the Tbilisi zoo, Ynet news reported.
Many animals, including monkeys and penguins, drowned in the muddy waters of the flash flood, while others were later shot, after being found prowling the streets.
Others, including lions, tigers and even a hippopotamus escaped but by Monday evening all the missing animals had either been recaptured or had perished, zoo spokeswoman Mzia Sharashidze told AFP.
Officials had said earlier Monday that two tigers, a bear, and a jackal were still on the loose. Their fate was unclear.
Some animals, including two bear cubs, found miles from the zoo, were returned to their enclosures.
Ten people are still missing after an intense downpour and high winds on Sunday turned a stream that runs through a section of Tbilisi into a sweeping torrent.
Over the past decades Tbilisi has repeatedly suffered severe flooding, including in 1967, when the floodwaters also carted off zoo animals, said Sharashidze.
Tbilisi Zoo director Zurab Gurielidze and his wife nearly perished trying to save the animals from the floods.
Three zookeepers died in the flood, including a woman who had her hand amputated last month after a tiger attacked her.
“Everything has been done to save as many animals as possible,” a teary-eyed Gurielidze said Sunday night.
“Special forces only opened fire at the animals –- such as tigers and lions –- that posed a threat to humans,” he said.
According to local reports, approximately half of the zoo’s animals drowned in the flood.
Authorities declared a day of mourning as Georgians described scenes of chaos, saying the disaster caught the city off guard.
Survivor Bela Gvelesiani, whose house was destroyed by the flood, said, “Everything happened in just two minutes. I looked through the window and saw that the river was in my courtyard.”
He added, “I can’t remember how we managed to get out. At first the water reached our ankles and in a split second we were up to our necks.”
Another resident Aleko Korkotashvili described seeing a man “clutching at a lamp pole in the middle of a violent torrent. He was screaming, asking for help, but we were unable to help him.”
In a show of solidarity, hundreds of volunteers joined a clean-up operation across the city.
“What happened was an apocalypse,” renowned Georgian actor Giorgi Nakashidze said as he helped National Guard soldiers clear away mud and fallen trees.
“In my lifetime, I never saw such a tragedy in our country. All those who care about our city, about people, should help rescuers and those who have suffered,” he said in televised remarks.
Outpouring of support
The disaster left dozens of families homeless and destroyed several roads.
Some homes were swept away in the deluge, along with numerous cars and some coffins that were washed out of the ground in a cemetery.
In a statement Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili praised the “unprecedented show of solidarity” from the volunteers who helped in the relief effort and started appeals for money, food and clothes for the victims.
Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri told reporters that initial estimates of $15 million in damage to infrastructure were conservative and that the final figure was likely to be “much higher.”
Tbilisi Mayor David Narmania said reopening a 2.5 mile highway linking the city’s two central districts would “take a long time.”