Bangkok governor to city: Prepare for floods, now

AP News
Posted: Oct 23, 2011 3:50 PM
Bangkok governor to city: Prepare for floods, now

The governor of Bangkok issued a dramatic late-night warning Sunday to residents of the Thai capital to prepare for floodwaters to roll deeper into the city from suburban areas already choking under the deluge.

In live televised remarks, Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said a massive amount of water has moved faster than anticipated and was expected to flood the Don Muang area just north of the city proper _ where Bangkok's old airport is located and now being used as headquarters for the anti-flood effort as well as a shelter for evacuees.

He said it would threaten five other districts as well as it barrels toward the city's more developed areas. On the warning list was the Chatuchak district, popular with tourists and locals both for its Weekend Market of handicrafts and myriad other wares.

"Now all indications point to only one conclusion: a critical problem will happen," Sukhumbhand said. He said residents of the six districts should move their belongings to higher ground, and the sick and elderly should be evacuated to shelters set up by the city. There was no indication that the capital's inner city residential and business districts were yet at risk.

Sukhumbhand's warning stood in stark contrast to general reassurances given earlier in the day by the Flood Relief Operations Center of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government. It announced that the situation was under control and could be expected to improve.

However, less than an hour after Sukhumbhand's warning, the center's chief, Justice Minister Pracha Promnok, came on the air to read a brief statement saying it would support the city's relief efforts.

Sukhumbhand has consistently issued more pessimistic assessments than the center, and has been in conflict with their plans for flood relief, saying his primary duty is to protect Bangkok's residents. The dispute has a political tinge since he is a prominent member of the opposition Democrat Party, ousted from power by Yingluck just a few months ago.

The anti-flood agency had said earlier Sunday that the threat that floodwaters will inundate Thailand's capital could ease by early November as record-high levels in the river carrying torrents of water downstream from the country's north begin to decline.

But with the authorities battling the waters north, east and west of the city proper, it was clear that Bangkok's immediate prospects remained uncertain. The relatively rosy longer term projection from the Flood Relief Operations Center came just a day after reports that Bangkok's main Chao Phraya river was overflowing its banks and at its highest levels in seven years.

Off a highway heading north of the city, Associated Press reporters found people scrambling Sunday for safety in flooded streets.

The Thai military used boats to help rescue stranded residents near Don Muang airport.

Mothers walked in hip-high water with children strapped to their backs, while other people waded through the murky water holding belongings in plastic bags atop their heads.

In Nonthaburi province, just north of Bangkok, a 7-foot (2-meter) crocodile was captured while resting on dry land outside a restaurant, presumably after pulling itself out of the surrounding floodwaters. Thai television showed the beast, which had reportedly escaped from a farm, with its snout taped shut and its scaly body covering most of a boat that was carrying it away.

An Associated Press photographer saw two crocodiles that had been killed in Nonthaburi, and unconfirmed recent reports have claimed up to 100 crocodiles may have escaped from farms in the region.

Yingluck said Saturday the waters may take up to six weeks to recede to manageable proportions around Bangkok. In the city and its environs, residents have settled into a routine of waiting and worrying.

Many are hoarding supplies, and supermarket shelves have emptied faster than they can be restocked. Bottled water, batteries and canned food were among the first items to go.

At a supermarket in central Bangkok's business district _ which is not under immediate threat _ sandbags lined both entrances Sunday, forcing shoppers to step over to go inside. Many of the shelves were bare, with the handful of shoppers inside grabbing the few snacks that were left. Cat food and toilet paper were gone.

While larger stores in Bangkok have kept their prices fixed, smaller merchants were raising theirs in the flooded zones north of the city. A Rangsit resident, Taweetit Hongsang, complained that the price of a papaya, 10 baht (33 cents) a week ago, had shot up to 30 baht ($1).

The desperate battle to route the water away from the city has led to several conflicts in which people have used force to try to protect their own neighborhoods by removing flood barriers.

Sukhumbhand said earlier Sunday that one crew of city workers was unable to carry out reinforcement of one barrier because of "a group of people opposing the mission and harassing" them. He said it was necessary to withdraw them "since they are not trained to deal with unruly and armed outsiders."

In evident response, Yingluck said she had delegated high-ranking police officers to protect workers carrying out anti-flood duties.

The flooding that began in August in northern Thailand has killed 356 people in the country and delivered an economic body blow to industry and agriculture, with estimates that the $6 billion in damage could double if Bangkok is badly hit.

The flooding is the worst to hit the country since 1942 and is proving a major test for Yingluck's nascent government, which took power in July after heated elections and has come under fire for not acting quickly or decisively enough to prevent major towns north of the capital from being ravaged by floodwaters.

A Sunday night report on state television in Myanmar, Thailand's western neighbor, said heavy rains and flash floods killed 106 as several villages were inundated in the country's northwest last week.

Cambodia, Thailand's eastern neighbor, has also suffered from flooding, with more than 240 people killed.