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Tens of thousands flee Bangkok as flood threat worsens

Tens of thousands of Bangkok residents jammed bus stations and highways Wednesday to flee Thailand's flood-threatened capital.
Image: Floods next to the Chao Praya river in Bangkok, Thailand
The Chao Praya River outside downtown Bangkok, Thailand, was overflowing Wednesday.Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Tens of thousands of Bangkok residents jammed bus stations and highways Wednesday to flee Thailand's flood-threatened capital as the city's governor ordered official evacuations in two swamped northern districts for the first time since the crisis began.

Floodwaters bearing down on the metropolis have killed 373 people nationwide since July, causing billions of dollars in damage and shutting down Bangkok's second largest airport.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government had repeatedly vowed to protect the capital, which has so far mostly escaped unscathed. But official assessments have turned grim in recent days, and everywhere people are preparing for flooding that seems all but inevitable.

Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra said residents of two of the city's 50 districts — Don Muang and Bang Phlat, both already partially submerged — should leave for safer city shelters.

"This is the first time I am using the term 'evacuation,' the first time I'm really asking you to leave," Sukhumbhand said.

Elsewhere in the city, thousands of people packed Bangkok's Mo Chit bus terminal, trying to leave town on their own. Many appeared to be taking advantage of a government-declared five-day public holiday to avoid a possible watery siege. The holiday 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.

The mass exodus included thousands of migrants from neighboring Myanmar, workers dependent on low-paying jobs so desperate to leave they are willing to brave a return to their intensely repressive nation to do so.

Authorities were also forced to move hundreds of inmates from three prisons — many on death row — to facilities in other provinces.

"After assessing the situation, we expect floodwater to remain in Bangkok for around two weeks to one month before going into the sea," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told reporters.

"However ... we shouldn't face water as high as two or three meters (yards) staying for two or three months as we've seen in other provinces."

Satellite maps of Bangkok showed a city almost entirely surrounded by water. Most of the vast pools of runoff now submerging a third of the country are flowing from the north toward Bangkok — southward toward the Gulf of Thailand.

"The amount of water is gigantic," Yingluck said. "Some water must spread into Bangkok areas but we will try to make it pass through as quickly as possible."

In the district of Sai Mai, located on the capital's northern outskirts, waist-high water turned roads into virtual rivers and swamped gas stations and homes.

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.

On Tuesday, floods breached barriers protecting the capital's Don Muang airport, shutting it down hours later. The airport is used primarily for domestic flights, but its closure dealt a major psychological blow to efforts to protect the capital.

The country's main international airport is still functioning normally.

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.

Yingluck urged everyone in the capital to move their belongings to higher ground and warned that the city's fate rested on three key flood barriers.

"If the three spots ... remain intact, the situation will improve," Yingluck said. However, "in the worst case, if we can't protect all three spots, all of Bangkok will be flooded."

A day earlier, Yingluck had warned that the floods could range from 4 inches to 5 feet (10 centimeters to 1.5 meters) deep in the capital.

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.