Confusion reigns as Thai capital braces for floods

Fear and confusion gripped Bangkok today as anxious residents grappled with mixed messages over whether Thailand's worst floods in half a century would overwhelm the intricate defenses of the low-lying metropolis of 9 million people.

The government sought to reassure residents the capital would be spared, noting that much of it stands behind a sturdy system of flood walls, dams and dikes that have been reinforced in recent days. The deluge has submerged entire towns across the country's central plains, devastated rice crops and shuttered hundreds of factories.

"I insist that the floods will only affect outer Bangkok and will not be widespread in other areas," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Friday.

Authorities have for days been warning that the flooding has reached crisis levels and that waters rushing from the north could combine with rains and high tides in the next few days to flood the capital. Some have said the rush of water would be so strong that authorities would be left with little choice but to watch the city drown.

But the message hasn't always been clear, with some agencies, departments and officials contradicting others, sometimes in the same news conference.

Yingluck visited a key part of Bangkok's defenses Friday just north of the city in Rangsit. There, military personnel and hundreds of volunteers raced to stack thousands of white sandbags along the walls of a canal gushing with runoff from the central plains to the north.

Troy Pannavaj, a 32-year-old volunteer, said authorities were trying to pump as much water as possible into the Chao Phraya River — which snakes through the capital and into the sea — before high tides or heavy rains over the weekend slow the outflow. "If these barriers break," Pannavaj said, "this water will rush through Bangkok very fast."

In another town north of Samkhok, also in Pathum Thani province, flood waters from the north breached a wall of white sandbags several dozen miles (kilometers) long, submerging Buddhist temples, homes and factories.

When soldiers were deployed to set up a new barrier in the middle of a main road in the town center, scuffles broke out between troops and angry residents who wanted to let the water run toward Bangkok, said Wasan Leekmeg, a local politician.

Some residents tried to remove the sandbags fortifying the wall. Rising waters eventually swamped the barrier, and "the soldiers gave up trying to protect it and started evacuating people," Wasan said.

"The problem is, the water keeps rising, and nobody knows how bad it's going to get," said Wasan, who spent the last few days ferrying supplies to desperate businesses and families on a wooden canoe — one of the only reliable ways to navigate the town.

Erroneous reports Thursday said flood waters had broken through another key flood gate in Pathum Thani, leading one government minister to order residents in the area to urgently evacuate. The government later apologized for the "misinformation," saying the evacuation order had been reversed and that damage to the gate had been overestimated.

The conflicting information has left many Bangkok residents scratching their heads and wondering whether their neighborhoods are truly at risk — and if so how best to prepare. Many have been stocking up on bottled water, rice, instant noodles, medicine and other essentials, leading to shortages in some areas. Others have moved their cars to higher ground in parking garages in the city's malls.

Buildings in many areas of the capital have stockpiled sandbags, while others have built protective walls from cement and cinderblocks. The city's subway system was rushing to install steel flood barriers.

"To be frank, I don't really know what's going to happen to Bangkok," said 26-year-old Kuealapat Atsawasiramanee, whose family home is about a half mile (a kilometer) from the Chao Phraya River. "Is it going to be flooded or not, I'm not really sure. There are many pieces of information and news out there and I just don't know what to believe."

"If it's going to flood, the government simply needs to say so. Don't conceal the truth, because that will only lead to more panic."

The confusion hasn't been limited to Bangkok.

A Japanese trade organization on Friday blasted the government for allegedly failing to provide timely and accurate information about the situation in the central province of Ayutthaya, where hundreds of factories have been devastated.

Seiya Sukegawa of the Japan External Trade Organization Thailand said much of the information released by the government before floodwaters hit the area was late, contradictory or difficult to understand because it was not in English.

"Japanese companies didn't know what was happening or which information was true or not," he said. "They received warnings but not enough information and not enough time to decide the next step."

He said more than 300 Japanese-owned factories — including electronics makers and automotive parts suppliers — were damaged or destroyed by flooding.

Sukegawa also complained that the Thai government was doing nothing to help companies reach their factories to salvage whatever equipment and technology remained undamaged.

Not just factories and humans were affected in Ayutthaya. About 100 elephants were forced to flee to higher ground and are facing food shortages as well as possible foot diseases because of the wet conditions, officials said.

Chusit Apirumanekul, a hydrologist at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, sympathized with the difficulties facing the government, saying the unpredictable nature of weather makes it impossible to forecast the flood threat with certainty.

"I think this is quite normal in every country when you have this kind of warning, forecasting, you cannot say that it will happen or it will not happen 100 percent," he said.

Yingluck said Friday that her government would adjust its methods of informing the public and that official information would only be released by the director of the Flood Relief Center.

Near the northern edge of Bangkok's city limits, Somjai Tpientong wondered whether the nearby sandbag wall protecting Rangsit and Bangkok would hold up.

"If the water comes I'll have to let it happen. There's no way I can block it. For me, I'll move to an upper floor," she said. "I feel sorry for the people in lower-lying areas."

Some 8.2 million people in 61 out of Thailand's 77 provinces have been affected by the flooding, which has killed at least 283 people since late July.