Thai floods shut Bangkok's second largest airport

October 26, 2011 - 12:25 AM
APTOPIX Thailand Floods

People rest at a flooded building in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011. Floodwaters in Thailand breached barriers defending Bangkok's second airport on Tuesday and have begun seeping into the compound, forcing at least one airline based there to suspend flights for a week, officials said. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK (AP) — Floodwaters inched closer to a terminal at the Thai capital's second largest airport Wednesday, leading many who had sought refuge at a shelter there to flee amid warnings that parts of Bangkok could be inundated by up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water.

The flooding at Don Muang airport, which is primarily used for now-grounded domestic flights, is one of the biggest blows yet to government efforts to prevent the sprawling capital from being inundated. Its effective closure is certain to further erode public confidence in the ability of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration to defend the increasingly anxious metropolis of 9 million people.

By Wednesday morning, more than 1,000 people sheltering there had fled as water continued to build around the terminal.

Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, the country's main international gateway, has yet to be affected by flooding and flights there were operating normally. Most of the city has been spared inundation so far, though bottled water and other emergency supplies were running low in many areas.

Yingluck's government declared a five-day public holiday on Tuesday in affected areas, including Bangkok, while the Education Ministry ordered schools to close until Nov. 7. Bangkok Gov. Suhumbhand Paribatra called for those who don't need to be in the city and can afford to leave to do so.

The prime minister warned in a televised address Tuesday that in a worst-case scenario, the enormous pressure of floodwaters pushing downstream into the city could combine with monthly high tides on Friday and Saturday to overwhelm recently reinforced flood walls and embankments protecting the city.

That could result in flooding of up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) in low-lying areas of the capital, she said.

Suhumbhand said the capital cannot escape flooding and warned residents of 13 districts along the Chao Phraya River, the city's biggest waterway, to be prepared.

The flooding at Don Muang airport symbolizes the gravity of the Southeast Asian nation's deepening crisis, which has seen advancing waters drown a third of the country and kill 373 people over the last three months.

The airport houses the government's recently established emergency Flood Relief Operations Center, and one of its terminals has been converted into an overcrowded shelter filled with tents for about 4,000 people who fled waterlogged homes.

Somboon Klinchanhom, a 43-year-old civil servant who took refuge there last week, was preparing to move Tuesday after authorities said the terminal had become too crowded and thousands of people displaced there would be relocated.

"I thought it would be safe and well-protected," Somboon said of the airport, as she packed her belongings again.

The government's flood relief command will remain at the airport for now since it is still accessible by road, spokesman Wim Rungwattanajinda said.

Last week, Yingluck ordered key floodgates opened to help drain runoff through urban canals to the sea, but there is great concern that rising tides in the Gulf of Thailand this weekend could slow critical outflows and flood the city.

The flood relief center had earlier said water levels in the worst-hit parts of the country — the submerged provinces north of Bangkok — were stable or subsiding. But the massive runoff was still bearing down on the capital as it flowed south toward the Gulf of Thailand.

While neighborhoods just across Bangkok's boundaries are underwater, most of the city is dry and has not been directly affected by the deluge.

Anxious Bangkokians, though, have been raiding stores to stock up on emergency supplies, and many have been protecting their homes and businesses with sandbags. Some have even erected sealed cement barriers across shop fronts.

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Associated Press writer Vee Intarakratug contributed to this report.