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Bangkok in peril as high tides put flood defenses to test

The 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.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Defenses shielding the center of Thailand's capital from the nation's worst floods in nearly 60 years mostly held at critical peak tides Saturday, as the waters began to recede after killing almost 400 people. But the threat to central Bangkok was not over, the prime minister said, and the city's northern districts remained submerged along with much of the countryside.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra urged citizens to let the crisis run its course as the floodwaters slowly drain to the sea, with Bangkok lying in their path. The floods that have besieged central Thailand for weeks submerged entire towns across the country's heartland and shuttered hundreds of factories over the last two months.

"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."

Bangkok residents watched the city's dikes and sandbag barriers warily as the high tide pushing up the Chao Phraya River from the Gulf of Thailand peaked Saturday morning. It had been described as the greatest test of the capital's flood defenses since the northern deluge first approached Bangkok more than three weeks ago.

While some water doused streets and shops along the river, the tides fell short of forecast highs and there was no major breach. Higher than usual tides will continue through Monday, but are predicted to be lower than Saturday's.

City official Adisak Kantee said the city's concrete barriers "are efficiently protecting Bangkok from deluge," though he said smaller, private dikes might yet fail.

"The situation is so far under control," he said.

Yingluck said in her weekly radio address the government was trying to speed the drainage rate and water in the greater Bangkok area should recede within days.

While downtown Bangkok were bone-dry and bustling, areas along the city's outskirts saw flooding spread. Seven of Bangkok's 50 districts — all in the northern and western outskirts — are heavily inundated. Eight other districts have seen less serious flooding.

In the city's west, not far from the flooded district of Bang Phlat, workers filled sandbags and stacked them in pickup trucks for delivery to the front lines, while vendors did booming trade in life vests, plastic boats, styrofoam and anything else that floated. With many roads in the area submerged, traffic was heavy both heading in and out of the city.

Thousands of Bangkok residents used a special five-day holiday to leave town, wary at confusing warnings about the flood threat and others concerned about sparse supplies in stores due to weeks of panic buying and flood-related distribution problems.

Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra highlighted another threat: sanitation. He ordered boats to collect uncollected garbage in a flooded district where most places were inaccessible by truck.

A Thai woman kisses her pet parrot along a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday Oct. 28, 2011. The Chao Phraya river coursing through the 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. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)Aaron Favila / AP

On Saturday, the Flood Relief Operations Center moved from its base at Don Muang airport after a power transformer malfunctioned. The airport, mainly used for domestic flights, closed Tuesday because of flooding on the runways and surrounding streets.

While many in Bangkok will be breathing somewhat easier now that the highest of tides has passed, there was no complacency in the Sam Sen area, where a floodwall burst Saturday morning under the pressure from the surging water. Residents and soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder in the churning torrents trying to plug the gap and get the flow under control.

At the nearby Boonchuay boxing camp, a handful of Muay Thai fighters went through their afternoon workout, sparring in a ring surrounded by the overflow of the Chao Phraya river. The camp's well-worn heavy bags dangled inches above the murky floodwaters, while the weight machines sat submerged up to their seats, rendering them unusable.

Don Krasaein, a junior lightweight fighter from the northeastern province of Nakorn Ratchasima, is one of 10-20 boxers who for the past month have had to cut out exercises that can't be done in the ring but come for three-hour workouts every morning and afternoon.

Don, 31, said the flooding was a distraction, but he wouldn't allow it to affect his fighting, despite the water swelling and peeling the skin on his feet. But he admitted to some worry.

"I'm scared the water is going to rise even more," he said.


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