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Bangkok’s flood defenses hold back peak coastal tide

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    Thai soldiers and residents carried sandbags to fortify a wall breached by swollen Chao Phraya river in Bangkok on Saturday. The complex network of flood defenses erected to shield Thailand's capital from the country's worst floods in nearly 60 years was put to the test Saturday as coastal high tides hit their peak.
    Thai soldiers and volunteers passed sandbags as they fortified an alley after swollen Chao Phraya river overflowed in Bangkok on Saturday.
    A Thai navy man pulled a boat carrying evacuees at an flooded area in Bangkok on Saturday.

BANGKOK » Defenses shielding the center of Thailand’s capital from the worst floods in nearly 60 years mostly held at critical peak tides Saturday, but areas along the city’s outskirts remained submerged along with much of the countryside.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said the floodwaters have started to recede after killing almost 400 people, submerging entire towns across the country’s heartland and shuttering hundreds of factories over the last two months. She urged citizens to let the crisis take its course as the floodwaters slowly drain to the sea, with Bangkok lying in their path.

"We have the good news that the situation in the central region has improved as runoff water gradually decreased," she said. "I thank people and urge them to be more patient in case this weekend is significant because of the high tide."

Bangkok residents watched the city’s dikes and sandbag barriers warily as the high tide pushing up the Chao Phraya River from the Gulf of Thailand peaked just after 9 a.m. They had been told for more than a week that Saturday’s tide would be the greatest test of the capital’s flood defenses since the northern deluge first approached Bangkok more than three weeks ago.

While some water doused streets and shops along the river, the tide fell short of the expected high predicted by the Thai navy and there was no major breach. Higher than usual tides will continue through Monday, but none was predicted as high as Saturday morning’s.

City official Adisak Kantee said the city’s concrete barriers "are efficiently protecting Bangkok from deluge," though he said smaller, private dikes might yet fail.

"The situation is so far under control," he said.

Overflows in recent days have lightly covered riverside streets from Chinatown to the famed Temple of the Emerald Buddha. But the white-walled royal Grand Palace was dry a day after being ringed by ankle-deep water, and the landmark remained open to tourists. Many visitors carried parasols to protect themselves from the blistering tropical sunshine.

Yingluck said in her weekly radio address Saturday that the government was trying to speed the drainage rate and water in the greater Bangkok area should recede within days.

While the streets of downtown Bangkok were bone-dry and bustling with taxis, restaurant-goers and tourists snapping pictures, areas along the city’s outskirts saw flooding spread.

Seven of Bangkok’s 50 districts — all in the northern and western outskirts — are heavily inundated. Eight other districts have seen less serious flooding.

In the city’s west, not far from the flooded district of Bang Phlat, workers filled sandbags and stacked them in pickup trucks for delivery to the front lines, while vendors did booming trade in life vests, plastic boats, styrofoam and anything else that floated. With many roads in the area submerged, traffic was heavy both heading in and out of the city.

Thousands of Bangkok residents in recent days have taken advantage of a special five-day holiday to leave town, many wary at often confusing government warnings about the flood threat and others growing concerned about increasingly sparse supplies available in the city’s supermarkets due to weeks of panic buying and flood-related distribution problems.

On Saturday, the agency tasked with keeping the public informed, the government’s Flood Relief Operations Center, was forced to move its headquarters from its base at Don Muang airport, which is used mostly for domestic flights, to a government building nearby after a power transformer malfunctioned. Authorities were forced to shut down the airport earlier in the week because of flooding on the runways and surrounding streets.

While many in Bangkok will be breathing somewhat easier now that the highest of tides has passed, there was no complacency in the Sam Sen area, where a floodwall burst Saturday morning under the pressure from the surging water. Residents and soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder in the churning torrents trying to plug the gap and get the flow under control.

Not far away, secondhand bookseller Pormpittaya Tantiwimonkajorn — who has already been forced to close her shop — could do little but watch as the waters rose.

"We don’t know how high it’s going to get," she said. "If we did, we’d know how to protect our property."

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