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Floods Afflict Ukraine as It Tries to Control the Coronavirus

MOSCOW — Rain-swollen rivers inundated towns, breached dams and stranded villagers in western Ukraine on Wednesday, in what officials called the region’s worst flooding in more than a decade — with the response this time complicated by the coronavirus epidemic.

As the water rose, one hospital was partially evacuated, but left behind were those with Covid-19, in a rescue that Ukraine’s prime minister said was carried out very carefully to avoid spreading the contagion. In an illustration of the overlapping disasters, people piled into military trucks, many of them wearing face masks, for evacuation over flooded roads.

Dams, bridges, dikes and roads were washed away in the Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv and Chernivtsi regions. More than 200 towns and villages flooded and roads to 34 settlements were cut off by high water, officials said.

At least three people died, including two whose car was swept away in a roiling river, and one person is missing. Denys Shmyhal, the prime minister, toured the area on Wednesday and called the damage worse than that from a major flood in 2008.

An unusual deluge touched off this week’s floods in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. About 70 percent of the region’s average monthly rainfall poured down on Tuesday and Wednesday, said Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs.

The area was “hit by a force of nature,” Mr. Avakov said.

But environmentalists pointed to an unnatural cause: illegal loggers who have taken advantage of the political chaos in Ukraine in recent years to cut down timber in vast forest tracts, increasing storm runoff and flooding.

An aerial view on the flooded villages in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of western Ukraine on Wednesday.Credit…Emergency Situation Ministry, via Associated Press

The spread of the virus posed additional risks in the flood zone. Ukraine has reported 39,852 cases and 1,061 deaths from the coronavirus.

A district hospital in the city of Halych on the Dniester River moved out eight patients as water flooded the basement, but 43 suspected and confirmed Covid-19 patients remained, said Volodymyr Krupa, the hospital director.

“There are certain complications” with the rescue because of the coronavirus cases, Mr. Shmyhal, the prime minister, wrote in a post on social media.

The water stopped rising on Wednesday, Mr. Krupa said in a telephone interview, but the hospital was cut off, with the road to it under water.

President Volodymyr Zelensky is self-isolating and has canceled all travel, after his wife, Olena Zelenska, tested positive for the virus earlier this month.

The government’s top forestry official said no amount of forest cover could have absorbed this week’s deluge. But environmentalists say that years of illegal logging in the once-dense Carpathian forests have left the area prone to flooding.

“Moisture is not retained in the slopes,” because of deforestation, Natalia Gozak, the director of Ekodia, a Ukrainian conservation group, said in an interview. Climate change has also brought more frequent heavy rains, she said.

This week, Earthsight, an environmental group based in Britain, accused the furniture giant Ikea of being a major buyer of illegal Ukrainian timber. Beech illegally cut down in the Carpathian Mountains goes into the company’s folding Terje chair and Ingolf dining chair, among other products, the group said in a report.

Ikea has responded by saying it never knowingly uses illegally harvested wood, that it will audit its Ukrainian suppliers and that less than 1 percent of the company’s global demand for wood comes from Ukraine.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Vinnytsia, Ukraine.

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