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Thai Floods Shut Down Bangkok's Second Airport

October 25, 2011

By Thanyarat Doksone and Todd Pitman, The Associated Press

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BANGKOK - Advancing floodwaters in Thailand shut down commercial flights Tuesday at Bangkok`s second airport, spilling across a complex housing the country`s flood relief headquarters in one of the biggest blows yet to government attempts to prevent the sprawling capital from being swamped.

The effective closure of Don Muang airport, which is used primarily for domestic flights, was sure 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.

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.

Don Muang has come to symbolize the gravity of the Southeast Asian nation`s deepening crisis, which has seen advancing waters drown a third of the country and kill 366 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 after authorities said the terminal had become too overcrowded and thousands of displaced people would be relocated to other shelters.

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

Outside, ankle-high water rushed over sandbagged barriers and swamped roads within the airport compound.

The two main carriers based at Don Muang announced they were suspending operations and diverting flights to Suvarnabhumi. They are Thai Orient Airlines and Nok Air, which said it was halting flights until Nov. 1.

Capt. Kantpat Mangalasiri, the airport`s director, said Don Muang`s runways - though not currently flooded - would be closed until Nov. 1 to ensure safe aircraft operations.

Thai air force flights carrying relief supplies were continuing on a military runway that is still open, air force spokesman Montol Suchukorn said. He said floodwaters had breached the military`s air base, but the runway remains protected by flood barriers.

Last week, the air force moved 20 planes from Don Muang as a precaution.

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

He said the government expects floodwaters will sweep through the main parts of Don Muang by Friday, but would not rise above 3.3 feet (one meter).

The scene at the domestic terminal was chaotic as throngs of confused passengers struggled to leave or pulled up to the departure hall with luggage, unaware their flights had been canceled.

With parts of the main road heading to downtown Bangkok flooded knee-deep, taxis were in scarce supply. Some travelers waited hours for a ride as airlines scrambled to arrange special buses.

Don Muang, located on Bangkok`s northern outskirts, is among seven of the capital`s 50 districts that the government has declared at risk. Those zones, in the north and northwest, are all experiencing some flooding.

The latest added to the list is the northwestern district of Bang Phlat. Late Monday, Gov. Suhumbhand Paribatra warned residents there to move their belongings to higher ground after water from the Chao Phraya River crept in through a subway construction site.

On Tuesday, Yingluck`s administration declared public holidays on Oct. 27-31 in affected areas, including Bangkok. The Education Ministry also ordered schools in 12 affected provinces and the capital to close until Nov. 7 due to the floods.

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.

Late Monday, the flood relief center 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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Story image: Motorists make their way on a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra issued a dramatic warning to residents of the Thai capital to prepare for floodwaters to roll deeper into the city from suburban areas already choking under the deluge. AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong.

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