Flood barriers will determine Thai capital's fate

October 17, 2011 - 4:55 PM
Thailand Floods

Thai soldiers pile up sand bags to make flooding barriers in Pathum Thani province, central Thailand Friday, Oct. 14, 2011. The Thai government vowed Friday that Bangkok's defenses will protect it from the worst flood waters in decades, which have devastated large swathes of the country and are now surging toward the capital. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

RANGSIT, Thailand (AP) — Somjai Tapientong lives on one side of a wall of white sandbags, her apartment perched precariously on the front line of an epic battle to stop the deadliest floods in decades from engulfing Bangkok.

On the other side, a foaming brown river gushes through a canal diverting water around the Thai capital, just to the south. Whether floodwaters breach fortified barriers like these this weekend will determine whether Bangkok will be swamped or spared.

On Saturday, the giant metropolis of glass-walled condominiums and gilded Buddhist temples was anxiously bracing for an answer to that question. Despite the panic that has engulfed the city of 9 million people for days, though, many believe its defenses just might hold.

"I'm not afraid," said Somjai, a 60-year-old hair dresser in Rangsit, whose canal is crucial to protecting the capital. "A lot of people are paranoid, but I don't feel that panic."

Adisak Kantee, deputy director of Bangkok's drainage department, reported encouraging signs Saturday. Runoff from the north had decreased slightly and high tides that could have impeded critical water flows to the Gulf of Thailand have not been severe as first thought, he told The Associated Press.

Water levels along the main Chao Phraya River and key canals to the north were still manageable, he said, though he warned "there could be trouble" if any critical barriers break.

On a bridge above a flooded canal in Rangsit, Army Col. Wirat Nakjoo echoed the need to be vigilant.

"The worst is not over," he said. "The dams are at near full capacity and there's still a lot of water that needs to be released."

Government workers there were taking no chances, stacking new sandbags atop a 5-foot-high (1.5-meter-high), 2.5-mile-long (4-kilometer-long) wall.

Incessant monsoon rains have killed nearly 300 people in Thailand since July, part of a wave of extreme weather including several typhoons and tropical storms that has plagued Asia this year. In neighboring Cambodia, floods over roughly the same period have killed another 247 people.

Thailand's lucrative tourist destinations — beaches and islands like Koh Samui, Krabi and Phuket — have not been hit. But the floods have affected 8 million people and swept two-thirds of the country, drowning rice fields and swallowing low-lying villages along the way.

More than 200 major highways and roads are impassable, and the main rail lines to the north have been shut down. Authorities say property damage and losses could reach $3 billion.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Walter M. Braunohler said a 10-man team of U.S. Marines was due in Bangkok on Saturday to begin a survey mission to determine how Washington could help. The Marines were traveling aboard an American Hercules cargo jet full of sandbags needed to reinforce flood barriers.

Government assurances the capital would not flood have not stopped Bangkokians from raiding supermarket shelves to stock up on bottled water, dried noodles, flashlight batteries and candles if things go bad. Worried car owners are cramming vehicles into high-rise parking spaces at city's malls and airports. International hotels and street-side shops have barricaded their entranceways with sandbags.

Television stations broadcasting images of swamped towns just north of the capital — showing waterlogged residents in canoes and braving chest-high water — have also inadvertently fueled fears of imminent doom downstream.

But Chusit Apirumanekul, a hydrologist at Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, said "that will not happen in ... the inner part of Bangkok."

There is always the possibility of flooding, he said, "but it will be very low."

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government says most of Bangkok, which lies about six feet (two meters) above sea level, sits safely behind an elaborate system of flood walls, canals, dikes and seven underground drainage tunnels which were completed over the last year.

The latest floods are posing the biggest test those defenses have ever faced.

Just beyond Bangkok's northwestern border, in the town of Samkhok, floodwaters breached a wall of white sandbags several dozen miles (kilometers) long, submerging temples and homes up to the top of their wooden gates.

"The problem is, the water keeps rising, and nobody knows how bad it's going to get," said Wasan Leekmeg, a local politician in Samkhok who spent the last few days ferrying supplies to desperate businesses and families on a wooden canoe — now the only way to get around some parts of the town.

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Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Chris Blake contributed to this report from Bangkok.