By Denis Dyomkin
GELENDZHIK, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin made his third visit in less than a month to an area hit by devastating floods on Wednesday, and promised the government would rebuild homes as the Kremlin sought to minimize the political damage from the disaster.
Putin talked to a group of pregnant women from the worst-affected town and again accused local officials of not doing enough to warn people about the rising waters.
Flash floods in the early hours of July 7 killed 171 people and damaged more than 4,000 homes, mainly in Krymsk, a mountain town on the edge of the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia.
Residents said many were caught by surprise by water pouring into their houses, even though the authorities had advance warning.
Moscow has been eager to deflect criticism from Putin and the central government. The administration was widely condemned for the poor response to raging summer wildfires that killed dozens of people in 2010.
The choreographed visit to a sanatorium in Gelendzhik, a resort town up the Black Sea coast from Putin's summer base in Sochi, featured prominently on state TV news.
Putin sat against a background of brightly colored children's drawings as camera shutters clicked and a little girl played behind him.
Destroyed homes will be replaced by new ones on safer ground, he told the pregnant women from the nearby town of Krymsk. The houses "will be much better. You will like them. By the middle of November all homes should be restored," he said.
The women had little chance to speak during the brief meeting. Some told journalists they wished authorities had done more on the night of the flooding.
"If only ambulances and police cars had driven around the city with sirens to warn us," said Tatyana Makhmudova. "There was no warning ... although the rain had continued for a day by then."
An investigation showed only 52 people in the town of 57,000 got the official warning, Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the federal Investigative Committee, told Putin during the visit.
"LAXITY AND NEGLIGENCE"
Putin said images shot from the International Space Station showed the movement of water and blamed the failure to alert residents on "the laxity and negligence of officials".
"Courts must draw the final conclusion about who is to blame and for what," Putin said.
Former Krymsk district chief Vasily Krutko, sacked after the flooding, has been detained along with Krymsk's mayor and the head of the local government's emergency response unit, the Investigative Committee announced on Sunday.
A former KGB spy now serving his third term at the Kremlin, Putin is determined to reinforce the image of a statesman leading a strong and well-organized country.
Putin won a six-year presidential term in March. Any drop in his strong support in the provinces would be another concern for the 59-year-old leader after months of protests against his 12-year rule, mainly in Russia's major cities.
"It's clear that we cannot prevent large-scale natural disasters of this kind," Putin said in a meeting with officials. "But we are capable of forecasting them and we absolutely must do everything to minimize the possible severe consequences."
Putin, who traveled to the area hours after the flood and again the following weekend, ordered 1.7 billion roubles ($52 million) allocated for payments to victims.
Another 500 million roubles ($15 million) is to be paid in subsidies to restore business activity and create new jobs in the region to "help people get on their feet," he said.
(Writing By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Andrew Heavens)