KHERSON, Ukraine -- A thick plume of smoke stretching across the horizon behind the overflowing Dnieper and the level of water flooding the riverbank: Those two things commanded the attention of residents of this southern Ukrainian city who were lucky enough to have their homes left intact as a humanitarian and environmental crisis unfolded around them following the destruction of a huge dam 70 kilometers upstream.
For Karyna Kublenka, it was a nightmare that had haunted her childhood.
"Back at school, we were taught what to do in case of a breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam," said Kublenka, who came to the elevated Glory Park with her husband, Oleh, on June 7 to take in the drastically changed view of the Dnieper and its wide delta.
"Although it was supposed to be caused by a possible earthquake, not a Russian terrorist act," she added, echoing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and millions of Ukrainians who say that Russia deliberately destroyed the dam as part of its war against their country.
Karyna and Oleh, who are in their 30s, run a coffee shop in Kherson. They brought their year-old son Mykyta -- a child born under Russian occupation -- to look at the river flooding an area stretching kilometers away from the city, which Ukraine took back from retreating Russian forces during a counteroffensive last fall.
Just 24 hours earlier, they were packing their personal belongings, fearing that they would have to evacuate. "But the water did not reach our apartment, and we are not going to leave," Oleh said.
Amir Seitbekov and Lyuba Lavrynenko, another couple sitting by the riverbank, watched the water as it rose, covering successive steps of a vast staircase stretching from the shoreline to the Eternal Flame monument that commemorates the liberation of Kherson from Nazi occupation in World War II.
"It looks like the Russians are drowning just like us, but they are also burning after our boys hit them," said Seitbekov, an auto mechanic, pointing at the plume of smoke.
More than a day after the breach of the Nova Kakhovka dam, the Dnieper -- Ukraine's largest river, which normally flows quietly through Kherson on its way to the Black Sea -- was roaring like a massive mountain stream. The abnormal sound caused by an abundance of water speeding downriver mixed eerily with what has become a familiar din in this front-line city: the loud bangs of outgoing artillery rounds.
Not far from Glory Park, the ruins of the Antonivskiy Bridge -- which was blown up as Russian troops retreated to the eastern bank of the Dnieper and Ukraine liberated Kherson in November -- seemed to sink deeper as the waters rose. Ukrainian soldiers calmly patrolled Khersonska Street, which is adjacent to the riverbank and until recently was under continuous mortar and sniper fire from Russian forces on the other side.
"They flooded their own positions and left their own soldiers to their own devices," a soldier with the call sign Dobriy told RFE/RL. He was celebrating his 34th birthday and was in a bright mood despite the ongoing flooding of the city.
"The Russians are growing desperate," he said, adding that speculation that Russia would blow up the Nova Kakhovka dam had been persisted since Russia seized control of it in the first days of the large-scale invasion in February 2022.
The long-term consequences of the breach are unknown, as is its exact cause. But in the coming days and weeks alone it is expected to have an enormous humanitarian and environmental cost, and it may affect the course of a long-awaited new counteroffensive against Russian forces who hold swaths of territory in southern and eastern Ukraine.
The massive flooding trapped thousands of people in their homes and killed scores of animals. Ukrainian authorities estimated that some 42,000 people in the Kherson region were at risk from flooding. Many thousands are left without access to electricity and drinking water. Adding to the crisis, the Health Ministry warned about the possible contamination of water in wells, rivers, and lakes in the flooded area.
Two days after the breach, the water level was still rising, and more and more Kherson residents -- especially those from the most hard-hit Korabel district, which is on an island, and the Dnieper embankment -- were forced to evacuate and seek shelter.
Since the evacuation started in Kherson, rescuers have brought in groups of people who had stayed in their homes, hoping in vain that the floodwaters would not reach them. Unable to save their possessions, they were coming with only documents in their bare hands and frightened, soaking-wet dogs and cats.
One of them, Mykola Blonskiy, stood meters away from the flooded part of Kherson with a puppy in his arms and a box full of chirping yellow chicks. Less than an hour earlier, he and his wife, Neonilla, had left their dacha on Velykiy Potomkin Island on the Dnieper, where they moved due to the war. Neonilla clutched a thick old bible, the only thing she took from the house.
"We hoped the water wouldn't reach us but ended up climbing onto a roof and waiting for a rescue boat to come," Blonskiy said. The elderly couple wanted to "hide away from the war" in their secluded summer cottage, Neonilla said, but now their "asylum is underwater."
Another survivor, Volodymyr Barsak, 66, said he woke up several hours ago and realized that the first floor of his building was underwater. Barsak, a former firefighter, left his third-floor apartment through the window, wearing just black trunks, and had a set of keys hanging from his necklace.
"I don't know what I'm going to do yet," he said after talking to family on a mobile phone. He did not leave his home during the eighth-month Russian occupation, which he called "the worst period of my life," but now he was driven out of it by the rising waters.
"What is going on now is not even evacuation; it's a lifesaving mission for those who did not evacuate when it was still possible," Yevhen Ihorovych, 29, an IT specialist turned volunteer working in Kherson, told RFE/RL.
Ihorovych, who had to leave his native Kherson region town of Skadovsk when it was occupied by Russian forces over a year ago, said that he believes people under the Russian-controlled eastern bank of the Dnieper are in a more dire situation.
In the occupied portion of the Kherson region, the Russian-installed authorities imposed a state of emergency on June 7, Russian state news agency TASS reported. At the same time, they said that "large-scale" evacuations were not planned, although Ukraine says they are necessary, with President Zelenskiy describing the situation there as "absolutely catastrophic."
According to Yevhen Ryshchuk, the displaced mayor of Oleshky, a Russian-controlled town on the eastern bank of the Dnieper, at least three people have died due to the flooding.
With increasing reports of flooded homes, damage, and evacuations, Kherson is undergoing yet another ordeal.
"But this is nothing comparted to the oppressive atmosphere of Russian occupation," Barsak said.