BANGKOK — With government officials saying there was nothing more they could do to protect the capital city from devastating flooding, tens of thousands of people were fleeing Bangkok on Thursday, jamming train and bus stations and clogging the southern highways out of town.
Water rose in outlying neighborhoods and rippled across the banks of the Chao Phraya River, but the streets of central Bangkok were still dry and unusually quiet. Government offices, schools and a number of major shopping malls had shut down or were closing early. People stowed their cars in high garages or triple parked on highway overpasses, and crowded onto the city’s elevated train and subway. Hastily built walls of sandbags and cement guarded the entrances to shops, homes, hotels and hospitals.
Grocery shelves were stripped of essentials; some shops imposed a rationing system on their shrinking stocks of items like instant noodles, rice and eggs. In many places, food vendors and their carts had disappeared from the sidewalks.
The flooding started three months ago with heavy rain and what seems to have been a badly timed release of water from dams, and has been moving south toward the capital, inundating cities like Ayutthaya.
As the flood approached Bangkok, the government seemed overwhelmed by the scale and uncertainty of the threat. A series of contradictory official statements in the past two weeks has coalesced into predictions of high water that could disrupt city life for weeks. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has warned of a worst-case scenario in which water could rise in some areas to as high as 2 meters, or about 6 feet, and remain for a month or more. On Thursday, Yingluck said the flood had overwhelmed all efforts to contain it.
“It seems like we’re fighting against the forces of nature,” she said. “The truth is, we need to let it flow naturally out to the sea, and what we can do now is to manage it.”
A young and inexperienced politician with an untried Cabinet of sometimes competing ministers, Yingluck has become the target of harsh criticism in this severely polarized nation. Cartoons, doctored photographs and false derogatory rumors have spread on the Internet and social networks.
On Thursday she found herself denying to reporters that the crisis had brought her to tears. “No, I haven’t cried and I won’t,” she said. “I’ll be strong and solve this problem for the Thai people.”
The coming weekend is of particular concern, when the enormous runoff from the north could combine with high tides to overflow the Chao Phraya River.