Thai flooding threatens capital as residents seek refuge

Updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu October 20, 2011

Story highlights

NEW: Bangkok residents scramble to prepare for flooding

Nearly 9 million people are affected by flooding, authorities say

It is the country's worst flood in half a century

"The situation is very uncertain," an aid worker says

(CNN) —  

Residents in parts of Bangkok cleared stores of bottled water and sought high ground to park their cars Thursday as government workers fought to contain flooding inching towards the capital city.

Government officials ordered floodgates opened in an effort to relieve pressure on dams and levees as enormous amounts of water flowed towards the sea in Thailand’s worst flood in half a century. As of Thursday, the death toll had risen to 320, with nearly 9 million others affected, authorities said.

The decision to divert water through Bangkok means parts of the city will likely be flooded, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said.

“We need areas that water can be drained through so the water can flow out to the sea,” the Bangkok Post newspaper quoted her as saying

Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra asked residents to remain vigilant, but said the situation is not at a crisis level. Water has not topped the last barrier protecting the city and water levels north of the city are receding, he said.

Yingluck said government officials would work to minimize the impact on populated areas.

Government officials asked residents in seven districts at risk from flooding to move valuables to upper floors. Sukhumbhand said residents of three additional districts should be on alert for possible flooding.

Officials predicted that water will enter northern Bangkok Friday.

“The situation is very uncertain as people are rushing to their homes to protect their belongings,” said Natasha Cheung, who works in northern Bangkok for the Christian aid organization World Vision.

Authorities also expressed confidence that the country’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport, was prepared to withstand the water’s impact. Airport officials said a 3.5-meter-high flood prevention wall protects the airport.

Overall damage from the floods could top $2 billion, with the worst yet to come as the waters destroy shops and paralyze factories nationwide, the Thai Finance Ministry said.

A massive effort is under way to protect one of the nation’s largest industrial parks north of Bangkok that houses companies producing electronics and components for the automotive industry.

At least 14,000 factories have been affected nationwide, with about 250,000 people out of a job due to the floods, according to Richard Han, the CEO of Hana Microelectronics.

The flooding will also disrupt the production of computers, cameras and cars because a lot of Japanese companies have plants in the country, said Han, whose company is among those affected.

Floodwaters have forced manufacturing sites north of Bangkok to halt operations. Last week, Honda said the closure of its plant there affected the production of at least 4,500 cars.

In Bangkok, crews scrambled to widen canals and strengthen flood barriers amid fears that weekend rains and spring high tides would overwhelm parts of the city.

In the ancient city of Ayutthaya, one of the worst-hit areas, officials said the water was starting to flow toward the rivers.

The temples and monuments in the UNESCO-listed historical city have been submerged for days, prompting concern that much of the water damage will be permanent.

Government officials said they have received $2.07 million in donations, including from other countries, as food and water aid pour in for the worst-hit areas.

CNN’s Kocha Olarn and Faith Karimi contributed to this report.