MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Thailand, the capital, Bangkok, is on the verge of what may be a catastrophic flood. The high water comes after three months of unusually heavy rain. Panic buying has left grocery shelves empty of the basics.

And as Michael Sullivan reports, many residents are fleeing rather than taking their chances in the city.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: At Bangkok's iconic Oriental Hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, the white tuxedoed musicians in the lobby were putting a brave face on things tonight, a little like the band on the Titanic right after it hit that nasty piece of ice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Outside, though, a construction crew was working overtime to buttress the semi-elegant, but utilitarian flood wall hastily erected to keep the water at bay.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

SULLIVAN: Yesterday, the Chao Phraya was about eight inches below the hotel's main outdoor dining area. Today, with rising tides from the south and the torrent of water from the north, the river was clearly winning. And with the lunar high tide expected tomorrow, this is the sound of disaster lapping at the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

SULLIVAN: The hotel and much of the city is virtually empty, the government declaring a five-day holiday to encourage people to leave Bangkok and move their belongings, and themselves, to higher and safer ground elsewhere. Today, the government admitted it was no longer a question of if but when.

PRIME MINISTER YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of deposed and fugitive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, admitted that Bangkok faced widespread flooding, but she pledged the government would do all it could to mitigate the damage.

The worst flooding to hit Thailand in more than five decades. Three months of torrential rains that have left large parts of the countryside virtually underwater, a situation that may continue there and here in the capital for weeks.

That's bad news for Thai workers everywhere. Car manufacturers and computer hard-drive makers have been hard hit by the floods in their factories north of Bangkok. Shortages of car and computer parts worldwide are likely to last well into next year. And many local jobs are now at risk, at least in the short-term.

SUWIT AMKHA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Suwit Amkha works at a printing company just outside the city, and has been slogging his way to work through thigh-deep water for three weeks now. The factory where he works was still dry today, but he was forced to abandon his apartment - the water, up to his chest. He moved his most sacred belongings, mostly images of the Buddha, to his sister's place on the high-rise inside Bangkok's city limits. But he worries what will happen when he tries to go back to work tomorrow.

AMKHA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I don't know if the shop will be underwater when I get there, he says. I don't know if my boss will pay me for the time I miss if he's forced to shut down. If I go there tomorrow, he says, and the factory is closed, then I'll go back home up country to see my wife and my new baby. It's a lot better, he says, than waiting around here.

And then there are those who make their living in the tourist business, another big foreign currency earner. Ratya Thongtamlung, who has owned her travel business in the Sukhumvit neighborhood for eight years, says her cancellations in the past week have outstripped any caused by the political crises here in the past three years.

RATYA THONGTAMLUNG: Right now, 80 percent because have only one booking right now, that he's still confirmed. One booking.

SULLIVAN: Ratya blames the government for mishandling the situation. The new prime minister, a political novice, not up to the job, she says. But others, including some environmentalists, say it was only a matter of time before rampant overbuilding in the floodplain and rapid development forced the issue.

The bottom line is, Thailand's commercial capital, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of the country's GDP, is likely to be underwater by this time tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues in a moment.

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