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Mass exodus from flood-ridden Bangkok

Oct. 27, 2011 - 19:24 By Korea Herald
Thousands abandon Thai capital; government admits entire city could be flooded

BANGKOK (AP) ― Residents poured out of the Thai capital by bus, plane and train Thursday, heeding government warnings to use a special five-day holiday to evacuate parts of the flood-threatened metropolis before a weekend deluge rushes through.

The evacuation warning applied to only two of Bangkok’s 50 districts ― Don Muang and Bang Phlat ― but with the government acknowledging the entire city could flood in the coming days, many residents elsewhere were leaving before the situation got worse.

Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Patibatra said Thursday morning that he expected to soon announce an evacuation warning for Sai Mai district, located on the capital’s northern outskirts, where waist-high water has turned roads into virtual rivers and swamped gas stations and homes.

At least one foreign government is advising against all but essential travel to Bangkok, with Britain’s Foreign Office saying “flooding is likely to disrupt transport, close tourist attractions and may affect electricity and water supplies.”

Thailand’s government has for weeks sent conflicting messages about the dangers of the floods ― which have killed 373 people nationwide since July and caused billions of dollars in damage ― at times warning Bangkok was in imminent danger and at other times declaring the city would be safe.

But efforts to protect the capital were dealt a major psychological blow Tuesday, when floodwaters breached barriers around the city’s second-largest airport and forced it to close.

Despite that, the vast majority of the city remained dry Thursday.

Thousands of people packed Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus terminal Wednesday, trying to leave town on their own to take advantage of the five-day public holiday that runs Thursday through Monday in flood-affected areas, including Bangkok.

Some waited for hours on the sidewalk outside Mo Chit because there was no space inside the terminal, the main departure point for buses to Thailand’s north.

Large crowds were also reported at the city’s main international gateway, Suvarnabhumi airport, which remained open.

As the waters rose in Sai Mai, hundreds of residents clamored aboard packed military trucks with their belongings, desperate to leave. But help was in short supply. “We haven’t been able to get on one (military truck) yet, we have been waiting for almost an hour,” said 71-year-old Saman Somsuk. “There aren’t many trucks.”

Others got out any way they could ― in paddle boats, plastic tubs, inner tubes and rubber rafts. Several men floated down a flooded road in a makeshift boat made of empty oil barrels tied to a rectangular plank. As fears of urban disaster set in, some residents built cement walls to protect their shops and homes.

Websites posted instructions on the proper way to stack sandbags. Many residents fortified vulnerable areas of their houses with bricks, gypsum board and plastic sheets. Walls of sandbags or cinderblocks covered the entrances of many buildings.

Concern that pumps would fail prompted a run on plastic containers in which to hoard water. Anticipating worse, one woman traveling on Bangkok’s Skytrain system carried a bag of life vests.

Panic has gripped parts of the city as more and more of it is affected by the advancing water. Residents stocking up on food and other necessities have emptied supermarket shelves. Bottled water and toilet paper were in especially short supply.

Residents living near Mahasawat Canal in western Bangkok evacuated on Wednesday after a rapid overnight rise in water.

“I decided to leave because the water came in very fast,” said Jong Sonthimen, a 57-year-old factory cleaner. A boat carried her and two plastic garbage bags with her belongings to a Buddhist temple, where pickup trucks waited to take residents to a safer area.

Last week, Yingluck ordered key floodgates opened in Bangkok to help drain runoff through urban canals to the sea, but there is great concern that rising tides in the Gulf of Thailand this weekend could slow critical outflows and flood the city.