Surging Floodwaters Displace Families in Thailand

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 on the floor of a dark university gymnasium that has served as one of Thailand's main evacuation centers 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."

Supanee's fears and confusion over where to go and how bad the flooding is going to get are shared by many Thais. Since the floodwaters began inundating areas north of the capital of 9 million two weeks ago, Bangkok residents have been on edge while watching the waters creep closer to the city center each day.

Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra warned residents in a televised address late Sunday that a large volume of water is surging forward faster than expected and is threatening six districts as it moves closer to the city's more developed areas, including neighborhoods near Chatuchuk weekend market, a popular shopping stop for tourists.

Sukhumbhand said the waters also are 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 the headquarters for the anti-flood effort and as 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 rivers carrying torrents of water from the country's north begin to decline.

On Monday, cars were double-parked on parts of an elevated highway near Don Muang to escape the water. The smell of raw sewage mixed with the 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 university -- now surrounded by water 5 feet (1.6 meters) deep -- 700 headed for Bangkok's National Stadium on Monday. 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 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.

Anxiety is high, as nervous Bangkok residents scramble to build sandbag barricades around their homes and businesses, not sure if or when the water will come. Drinking water, rice, canned food and toilet paper is hard to find in many supermarkets as shoppers race to hoard supplies.

Those like Supanee, who is from the old capital of Ayutthaya, which has been submerged for more than two weeks, are no longer worried about will come, but now fear what they will find when they finally go home. The water came so fast that Supanee's family didn't have time to move their car, and although they managed to drag most of their furniture and electronics upstairs, it still wasn't high enough. The floodwater surged chest-high on the second floor.

From there, the extended family of seven fled to a Buddhist temple until it was overrun with water, and then were forced to leave a tent at city hall. They later bounced from one gym to another at Thammasat University, and are now determined to ride it out there, despite risking food and water shortages to stay put. Electricity has already been cut.

"It's quite hard to move to another place," Supanee said, smiling, while trying to stay positive about the fact that her family will now have more room. "I'm tired of moving."