BANGKOK — Thailand's prime minister urged Bangkok residents to get ready to move their belongings to higher ground Friday as the country's worst floods in half a century began seeping into the capital's outer districts.
The government has opened several key floodgates in a risky move to let built-up water flow through the canals toward the sea, and it's not known how much the canals will overflow.
An Associated Press team Friday saw water entering homes in Bangkok's northern Lak Si district, along the capital's main Prapa canal. The water rose to knee-level in some places but damage so far was minor and not affecting Bangkok's main business district.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told reporters the Prapa canal was a big concern.
"I would like to ask people in all districts of Bangkok to get ready to move their belongings to higher ground as a precaution," Yingluck said, while also urging people "not to panic."
Yingluck invoked her powers under the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Act giving her overriding authority over all other official bodies, including local governments, to fight the crisis.
The action should allow better coordination with the municipal authorities in Bangkok, who normally have legal authority to make their own decisions. It also helps project Yingluck as a take-charge leader, after weeks of seeming indecision and confusion.
Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra said managing the Prapa canal was a "top priority" but vast pools of runoff draining through it from the north are expected to intensify.
the immense networks of sandbagged barriers could deteriorate under pressure from the water, since they were not designed as dams.
Excessive rains and storms have wasted a vast swath of Asia this year, killing 745 people — a quarter of them children — in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines, according to the United Nations.
Thailand's government said Friday at least 342 deaths occurred here, mostly from drowning as floodwaters crept across this Southeast Asian nation since July. The floods have submerged land in about one-third of the country, leaving some towns under water more than six-feet-high (two-meters-high).
Economic analysts say the floods have cut Thailand's 2011 GDP projections by as much as 2 percentage points. The latest damage estimate of $6 billion could double if floods swamp Bangkok.
• Associated Press writer Vee Intarakratug contributed to this report.