Bangkok flood defenses put to test amid high tides

Thai residents balance on a lane divider at Pin Klao bridge in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday. The Chao Phraya river, the main river coursing through Thailand's capital, swelled to record highs Friday, briefly flooding riverside buildings and an ornate royal complex at high tide amid fears that flood defenses could break and swamp the heart of the city.
Thai residents balance on a lane divider at Pin Klao bridge in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday. The Chao Phraya river, the main river coursing through Thailand's capital, swelled to record highs Friday, briefly flooding riverside buildings and an ornate royal complex at high tide amid fears that flood defenses could break and swamp the heart of the city. (SAKCHAI LALIT / Associated Press)
Posted: October 29, 2011

BANGKOK - The complex network of flood defenses erected to shield Thailand's capital from the country's worst floods in nearly 60 years was put to the test Saturday as coastal high tides hit their peak. No major breaches were immediately reported.

Fear gripped Bangkok early in the day as tides along the Gulf of Thailand crested at about 9 a.m. and pushed the city's main waterway, the Chao Phraya river, to its brink. Overflows so far have lightly inundated riverside streets from Chinatown to the famed Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

But the white-walled royal Grand Palace was dry, less than 24 hours after being ringed by ankle-deep water, and the landmark remained open to tourists. Many visitors carried parasols to protect themselves from the blistering sunshine.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said in her weekly radio address that floodwaters that had wreaked havoc to provinces north of Bangkok in the last several weeks had started to recede, and she urged citizens to let the crisis take its course.

"We have the good news that the situation in the central region has improved as runoff water gradually decreased," she said. "I thank people and urge them to be more patient in case this weekend is significant because of the high tide."

She also said that the government had implemented a plan to accelerate the drainage rate and that water in the greater Bangkok area should recede by the first week of November.

Meanwhile, the streets of downtown Bangkok - the country's financial heart - were bone-dry and bustling with taxis, restaurant-goers and tourists snapping pictures. But the city remained in peril, as high tides along the gulf were expected to crest again late in the day, threatening to obstruct the flood runoff from the north. The government also is worried that major barriers and dikes could break.

Also Saturday, the government's Flood Relief Operations Center moved its headquarters out of Don Muang airport after officials conceded that surrounding floodwaters, as well as interruptions of power and water supplies, had become too onerous. The center was relocating to a government building south of the airport, which is used mostly for domestic flights and stopped its regular operations this week after water broke through protective barriers.

The city's main international gateway, Suvarnabhumi airport, remained open.

On Friday, saffron-robed monks and soldiers piled sandbags outside the capital's most treasured temples and palaces as the Chao Phraya swelled precariously beyond its banks. Most of the water receded at low tide, but worried Bangkokians were buying up bright orange lifejackets and inflatable boats, fearing the worst is yet to come.

"You have to prepare," said Fon Kanokporn, a banker who bought a rubber boat from a store that had several hanging from trees out front as advertisements.

Employees at the shop said they had sold well over 3,000 boats in the last week. The brisk business is a measure of the fear gripping Bangkok and a reflection of the tragedy of neighboring provinces that have been submerged for weeks. Several buyers said they needed boats because their submerged homes outside the capital were no longer accessible by road.

Three months of relentless monsoon rains have caused the worst flooding in Thailand in more than half a century, triggering a national crisis that has overwhelmed Yingluck's government.

The water has crept from the central plains south toward the Gulf of Thailand for weeks, engulfing a third of the country and killing nearly 400 people and displacing 110,000 more. Now, Bangkok is in the way - surrounded by behemoth pools of water flowing around and through the city via a complex network of canals and rivers.

On Friday, army trucks dumped thousands of sandbags outside the riverside Siriraj Hospital, where Thailand's ailing and revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej has stayed since 2009.

Elsewhere along the Chao Phraya, dozens of monks at the 200-year-old Temple of the Dawn stacked hundreds more along a secondary barrier to protect against river overflows.

"It's likely going to get higher, but I don't think its going to get high enough to cause chaos," said Phramaha Abhin, a 42-year-old monk. Still, he said, "we cannot neglect the risk to this temple. It's one of the country's landmarks, one of the things Thailand is known for. We have to protect it."

The State Railway of Thailand said all train services from Bangkok to southern Thailand were suspended after the tracks in Bangkok's suburbs were submerged by floodwaters.

Thais and expatriates alike continued to leave Bangkok as foreign governments urged their citizens to avoid the threatened city, citing transportation difficulties and shortages of certain food items.

Seven of Bangkok's 50 districts - all in the northern outskirts - are heavily flooded, and residents have fled aboard bamboo rafts and army trucks and by wading through waist-deep water. Eight other districts have seen less serious flooding.

New flooding was reported Friday in the city's southeast when a canal overflowed in a neighborhood on the outer parts of Sukhumvit Road. And high tides briefly touched riverside areas closer to the city's central business districts of Silom and Sathorn. But the day passed without major incident.

"It is clear that although the high tides haven't reached 2.5 meters [8.2 feet], it was high enough to prolong the suffering of those living outside of the flood walls and to threaten those living behind deteriorating walls," Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra said.

The flood walls protecting much of the inner city are 8.2 feet high, and Saturday's high tide was expected to reach 8.5 feet.

International charity Save the Children said it was concerned that crocodiles and snakes were lurking in stagnant floodwaters it said are growing filthier by the day.

"Every day we see children playing in the water, bathing or wading through it trying to make their way to dry ground," said Annie Bodmer-Roy, the group's spokeswoman in Thailand.

The aid group said many families have been left without access to running water or clean toilets.

"There is a very real risk of waterborne or communicable diseases such as diarrhea and skin infections taking hold if families can't maintain basic standards of hygiene," Bodmer-Roy said. "It is essential that the risks facing children in this crisis are understood and steps taken to keep them safe."


Associated Press writers Vee Intarakratug and Chris Blake contributed to this report.

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