Clinton sees flood evacuees on quick Thailand trip

November 17, 2011 - 10:30 AM
Thailand Floods

Thai residents ride rafts and boats through a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

BANGKOK (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton played with a toddler and asked a little girl if she misses school during a quick visit to an evacuation center for Thai flood victims Thursday, a day after announcing a $10 million aid package.

Clinton exchanged the traditional Thai greeting known as "wai" — bowing deeply while pressing the palms together near the face — with some of the more than 1,400 evacuees living in gymnasiums inside the Ratchamangala National Stadium complex.

"Tell me your story," she asked some of the evacuees, including Wirat Chumsuwan.

"It's someone big from another country and she's interested in helping our country, so it feels good," Wirat said.

Nearly a third of Thailand's 77 provinces, including Bangkok, have been hit by floods since late July. More than one-fifth of the country's 64 million people have been affected, and at least 567 have died.

Clinton arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday in a hastily arranged trip, making a detour while on her way to attend a regional summit in Bali, Indonesia. On Wednesday, she announced an aid package worth $10 million in addition to $1 million in aid already given through the Red Cross.

At the stadium complex, evacuees sleep next to each other on blue mats with their meager possessions stacked nearby. Clinton, accompanied by Thai officials, played briefly with a toddler feeding from a milk bottle.

She then asked Wirat's 9-year-old daughter Manthitha if she misses school. The girl said she did, not having gone to class for more than two months.

Wirat, who lives in the nearby province of Pathum Thani, said he battled the floods for two weeks but had to evacuate a month ago.

"The water was rising and I couldn't stay anymore," he said.

Wirat took his family to an evacuation center at Bangkok's Don Muang domestic airport, where they stayed for a week before that too was flooded. They were moved to the stadium complex three weeks ago.

The U.S. is already providing medical assistance and a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Lassen, is in a Thai port with crew and helicopters to help relief efforts, Clinton said.

She said the U.S. would help reopen Don Muang airport and rehabilitate flooded police stations.

Washington is also consulting with the Thai government on how to restore important cultural sites, such as the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, which is in one of the worst-hit areas.

Parts of Thailand, especially areas just outside Bangkok, still face weeks of flooding. But the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority said the overall situation in the capital is improving quickly, especially in Don Muang and Lad Phrao, a district studded with office towers, condominiums and a popular shopping mall.

In northern Bangkok, a few hundred residents protested Thursday near a dike made of sandbags, complaining that floodwaters on their side of the barrier were higher.

After negotiations with authorities, the community was permitted to remove two 16-foot (5-meter) -wide sections of the barrier so water could flow out, police Maj. Gen. Damrongsak Kittipraphat said.