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Fear and confusion grip Bangkok as Thailand's government struggles to manage flood message
BANGKOK (AP) ' Fear and confusion gripped Bangkok on Friday as residents grappled with mixed messages over whether Thailand's worst floods in decades would overwhelm the intricate defenses of the low-lying metropolis of 9 million people.
The government sought to reassure residents that the Thai capital would be spared from the deluge that has submerged entire towns across the country's central plains, devastated rice crops and shuttered hundreds of factories, noting that much of Bangkok sat behind a sturdy flood wall that had been reenforced in recent days.
"I insist that the floods will only affect outer Bangkok and will not be widespread in other areas," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Friday.
Authorities had for days been warning that the flooding had reached crisis levels and that waters rushing from the north could combine with rains and high tides in the next few days to flood the capital. Some had said the rush of water would be so strong that authorities would be left with little choice but to watch the city drown.
But the message hasn't always been clear, with some agencies, departments and officials contradicting others, sometimes in the same news conference.
Erroneous reports Thursday said flood waters had broken through one key flood gate, leading one government minister to order residents in the area to urgently evacuate. The government later apologized for the "misinformation," saying the evacuation order had been reversed and that damage to the gate had been overestimated.
The conflicting information has left many residents of Bangkok scratching their heads and wondering whether their neighborhood was truly risk ' and if so how best to prepare. Some have been stocking up on bottled water, rice, instant noodles, medicine and other essentials, leading to shortages in some areas. Others have moved their cars to higher ground in parking garages in the city's malls.
Buildings in many areas of the capital have stockpiled sandbags, while others have built protective walls from cement and cinderblocks. The city's subway system was rushing to install steel flood barriers.
"To be frank, I don't really know what's going to happen to Bangkok," said 26-year-old Kuealapat Atsawasiramanee, whose family home is about a half-mile (a kilometer) from the Chao Phraya River, which snakes its way through the city. "Is it going to be flooded or not, I'm not really sure. There are many pieces of information and news out there and I just don't know what to believe."
"If it's going to flood, the government simply needs to say so. Don't conceal the truth, because that will only lead to more panic."
The confusion hasn't been limited to Bangkok.
A Japanese trade organization on Friday blasted the government for allegedly failing to provide timely and accurate information about the situation in the central province of Ayutthaya, where hundreds of factories have been devastated.
Seiya Sukegawa of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Thailand said much of the information released by the government before floodwaters hit the area was late, contradictory or difficult to understand because it was not in English.
"Japanese companies didn't know what was happening or which information was true or not," he said. "They received warnings but not enough information and not enough time to decide the next step."
He said more than 300 Japanese-owned factories ' including electronics makers and automotive parts suppliers ' were damaged or destroyed by flooding.
Sukegawa also complained that the Thai government was doing nothing to help companies reach their factories to salvage whatever equipment and technology remained undamaged.
Chusit Apirumanekul, a hydrologist at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, sympathized with the difficulties facing the government, saying the unpredictable nature of weather makes it impossible to forecast the flood threat with any certainty.
"I think this is quite normal in every country when you have this kind of warning, forecasting, you cannot say that it will happen or it will not happen 100 percent," he said.
Yingluck said Friday that her government would adjust its methods of informing the public and that official information would only be released by the director of the Flood Relief Center.
Near the northern edge of Bangkok's city limits, Somjai Tpientong wondered whether the nearby sandbag wall protecting her community of Rangsit ' one link in the perimeter around Bangkok ' would hold up.
"If the water comes I'll have to let it happen. There's no way I can block it. For me, I'll move to an upper floor," she said. "I feel sorry for the people in lower-lying areas."
Some 8.2 million people in 61 out of Thailand's 77 provinces have been affected by the flooding, which has killed at least 283 people since late July.