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Bangkok flood defenses put to test amid high tides

By Todd Pitman

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 28 2011 9:50 p.m. MDT

Children with a float swim through a swollen canal in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011. The main river coursing through Thailand's 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.

Andy Wong, Associated Press

BANGKOK — The complex 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 early Saturday as coastal high tides hit their peak. No major breaches were immediately reported.

Fear gripped Bangkok early in the day as tides along the Gulf of Thailand crested at about 9 a.m. and pushed the city's main waterway, the Chao Phraya river, to its brink. Overflows so far have lightly inundated riverside streets from Chinatown to the famed Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

But the white-walled royal Grand Palace was dry, less than 24 hours after being ringed by ankle-deep water, and the landmark remained open to tourists. Many visitors carried parasols to protect themselves from the blistering sunshine.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said in her weekly radio address that floodwaters that had wreaked havoc to provinces north of Bangkok in the last several weeks had started to recede, and she urged citizens to let the crisis take its course.

"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."

She also said that the government had implemented a plan to accelerate the drainage rate and that water in the greater Bangkok area should recede by the first week of November.

Meanwhile, the streets of downtown Bangkok — the country's financial heart — were bone-dry and bustling with taxis, restaurant-goers and tourists snapping pictures. But the city remained in peril, as high tides along the gulf were expected to crest again late in the day, threatening to obstruct the flood runoff from the north. The government also is worried major barriers and dikes could break.

Also on Saturday, the government's Flood Relief Operations Center was forced to move its headquarters from its base at Don Muang airport, which is used mostly for domestic flights, to a government building nearby after a power transformer malfunctioned. Authorities were forced to shut down the airport this week after floodwaters rushed in.

On Friday, saffron-robed monks and soldiers piled sandbags outside the capital's most treasured temples and palaces as the Chao Phraya swelled precariously beyond its banks. Most of the water receded at low tide, but worried Bangkokians were buying up bright orange lifejackets and inflatable boats, fearing the worst is yet to come.

"You have to prepare," said Fon Kanokporn, a banker who bought a rubber boat from a store that had several hanging from trees out front as advertisements.

Employees at the shop said they had sold well over 3,000 boats in the last week. The brisk business is a measure of the fear gripping Bangkok and a reflection of the tragedy of neighboring provinces that have been submerged for weeks. Several buyers said they needed boats because their submerged homes outside the capital were no longer accessible by road.

Three months of relentless monsoon rains have caused the worst flooding in Thailand in more than half a century, triggering a national crisis that has overwhelmed Yingluck's government.

The water has crept from the central plains south toward the Gulf of Thailand for weeks, engulfing a third of the country and killing nearly 400 people and displacing 110,000 more. Now, Bangkok is in the way — surrounded by behemoth pools of water flowing around and through the city via a complex network of canals and rivers.

On Friday, army trucks dumped thousands of sandbags outside the riverside Siriraj Hospital, where Thailand's ailing and revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej has stayed since 2009.

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