Thai Flood Holdouts Complicate Relief Efforts

There’s no food left for sale anywhere near Thipawan Pipatkul’s house. In fact, there’s not much of her house left above the surface now that the fetid black waters have poured in. Yet, like thousands in Bangkok’s flood zones, she’s ignoring government warnings to evacuate.

Instead, Thipawan and her husband are making a four-hour slog through stinking water that shines with oil and is littered with garbage as they head to dry ground in search of essentials. It is a grim routine they’ve repeated several times in the week since Thailand’s worst floods in a half century turned their neighborhood near Don Muang airport into an inland sea.

“Every time we go out, we bring as much food and supplies back as we can,” the 30-year-old mother of three said. “We have to help ourselves.”

As Thailand struggles to cope with the historic floods, holdouts like Thipawan’s family are frustrating authorities who say victims’ reluctance to leave behind their few possessions is complicating an already difficult relief effort.

Many of Bangkok’s government-run shelters sit largely empty, even as the submerged streets in some of the city’s hardest-hit areas are still bustling with a constant stream of people wading, floating and boating in and out.

“We try to do the best we can but we can’t cover every house in flooded areas,” said Jate Sopitpongstorn, a spokesman for the city government. “We don’t have the manpower to get to everyone and to get three meals a day to them.”

Monsoon rains since July have inundated a third of Thailand, costing billions of dollars in damage to submerged homes, businesses and crops. The worst-hit provinces are just north of Bangkok, but floodwaters began swamping districts on the capital’s northern outskirts last month.

In recent days, floodwater has deepened in the city and oozed into new districts. On Wednesday the government said the nationwide death toll had risen to 427.

The city says it has no estimate for the actual number of Bangkok’s 9 million residents affected by the deluge, but population figures suggest they have impacted a far greater number than the 11,000 who have moved into the city’s evacuation centers. Don Muang district alone – which the government says is nearly 100 percent flooded – is home to 166,000 people.

Many in Bangkok’s 15 flooded districts have likely moved in with relatives or friends in unaffected areas, but swamped neighborhoods still show signs that life goes on despite disaster.

Along Don Muang’s Chang Akat Uthit Road, the neighborhood duck restaurant was closed. So were the two convenience stores, the gold shop and even the Party House pub. The car wash was deserted except for two Honda hatchbacks submerged in the driveway, and a construction site with the sign advertising “Cheap Land For Sale” was quiet.

But in the middle of the street people were ferrying supplies into the neighborhood, some carrying jugs of cooking oil, sacks of rice or boxes of fresh food, while others were leaving, carrying valuables such as TVs and electric fans toward drier ground.

Chaiyut Baannak, 49, said he was on his way to find a boat to purchase, but promised he would be back. Wearing a bright orange life jacket with a bottle of water tucked into a pocket, he said it was a sense of community that keeps him from leaving.

He acknowledged that he and his neighbors desperately need mobile toilets and it was becoming more difficult to find food, with many in the area now dependent on relief supplies. Still, he said he needed to stick around to look out for the homes and to care for the 20 or so neighborhood dogs.

“No matter what happens,” he said, “I’m going to stay here to protect others.”

Pavinee Youprasert of the Thai Red Cross Society said her group has been sending 3,000-3,500 relief packs every day into flood-hit neighborhoods in Bangkok as well as the nearby provinces of Pathum Thani and Nonthaburi.

“We cannot say how bad the situation is going to be, but it doesn’t look rosy when it comes to humanitarian assistance,” she said. “From what we’ve got from the field, in every area that has been flooded, there is a dire need for access to basic supplies.”

In recent days, politicians, the military and private businesses have all been out in flooded neighborhoods handing out relief goods. Many of those wading along Chang Akat Uthit Road were carrying nylon blue sacks containing soap, toilet paper and canned fish handed out by TOT, the national phone company.

Others have donated the huge delivery trucks that are able to ply the waterlogged main roads, giving much appreciated rides to weary residents.

Thipawan and her husband, Chai, stood in the back of one such truck as they made their way back toward their inundated neighborhood, a plastic tub with a bag full of rice and canned food at their bare feet. Thipawan rested her head on Chai’s chest as he wrapped his arm around her shoulder, both clearly tired from their hourslong trek.

Thipawan worried that the electricity to their home would be cut by the time they made it back because the water had been rising fast that morning. They acknowledged that their flooded home wasn’t an ideal place to stay and they have sent their children to live with relatives in the country’s northeast.

“There’s nothing to do at home,” she said. “We just sit and watch our belongings.”