Floodwaters edged deeper into northern districts of Thailand's capital Bangkok on Monday after the governor of the city issued a dramatic late-night warning to residents to prepare for a deluge that has already swamped suburban areas and forced thousands to flee their homes.
Sukhumbhand Paribatra warned residents in a televised address that the large volume of floodwater was threatening six districts as it moved closer to the city's more developed areas, including the section near Chatuchuk weekend market, a popular shopping stop for tourists.
Sukhumbhand also said the waters were expected to swamp the Don Muang area just north of the city proper. The area is home to Bangkok's old airport, which is now being used as headquarters for the anti-flood effort and a shelter for evacuees.
Facing public pressure and scrutiny from the media, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra tried to downplay any notion that her government was not being upfront with information, following a number of upbeat statements that have conflicted with Sukhumbhand's more menacing assessments.
The conflict has a political tinge since Sukhumbhand is a prominent member of the opposition Democrat Party, which was ousted from power by Yingluck just a few months ago.
"This is the third month that water came into Thailand, since July, in the form of four consecutive storms," Yingluck told reporters Monday. "Normally, if one storm hits, the runoff will be drained off from the dams and there will be a break. We've never hidden anything from the people. We've informed them about every solution we've taken."
Yingluck said over the weekend that the waters may take up to six weeks to recede to manageable proportions around Bangkok, while the flood response agency said the threat that floodwaters will inundate the capital could ease by early November as record-high levels in the river carrying torrents of water downstream from the country's north begin to decline.
On Monday, cars were double-parked on parts of an elevated highway near Don Muang to keep water from seeping inside. The smell of raw sewage mixed with swift currents sweeping across parts of the main highway a bit farther north in Pathum Thani province near Thammasat University, where the military was helping to evacuate hundreds of flood victims who carried their few belongings slung across their backs in garbage bags.
Of the 4,000 people who had sought refuge at the school — which was surrounded by a moat of water 1.6 metres deep — 700 headed for Bangkok's National Stadium on Monday. Still, more than 100,000 others have been left homeless nationwide since heavy monsoon rains began overpowering the country's network of rivers and canals, submerging an area roughly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut.
More than 100 patients from hospitals in Bangkok, including Thammasat University Hospital, were moved over the weekend to regional facilities, the government said Monday.
The flooding began in August in northern Thailand and has killed 356 people in the country and delivered an economic blow to industry and agriculture. Damage is already estimated at $6 billion, but that could double if Bangkok is badly hit.
'The water will follow me'
Anxiety is high, as nervous Bangkok residents scramble to build sandbag barricades around their homes and businesses, not sure when or if the water will come and how much. Water, canned food and toilet paper is hard to find in some downtown supermarkets as shoppers race to hoard supplies.
Supanee Pansuwan has already picked up and moved four times since fast-rising floodwaters began swallowing her home in central Thailand a month ago. Now, as the murky waters threaten the shelter on the outskirts of Bangkok where she's lived for the past two weeks, she's being asked to flee again.
"I believe the water is chasing me," she said Monday, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a dark university gymnasium that has served as one of Thailand's main evacuation centres since the worst floods in half a century swamped many people's lives.
"Anywhere I go, the water will follow me. So if I make another move, I think the water will follow me again."