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25 April 2024

Floods, blackouts after Thai storm, but tourist islands spared


Floods and blackouts caused by Tropical Storm Pabuk left nearly 30,000 people in evacuation shelters across southern Thailand Saturday, as relieved tourists stranded on islands further north were spared the worst and began to plot routes home.

Pabuk, a once in three-decades weather system, packed winds of up to 75 kilometres (45 miles) an hour and brought heavy rains and storm surges as it lashed the entire south of the kingdom on Friday, downing power cables and causing widespread flooding.

A fisherman died in southern Pattani province early Friday as high waves smashed into his boat and another crew member was reported missing.

But the storm tacked away from the key tourist islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao where large numbers of tourists hunkered down for 24 hours in heavy rains, unable to leave as airports closed and ferry services were cancelled.

"There were no casualties, there is some sunshine today and I'm confident some tourists will be able to leave today as ferries and flights resume," Kittipop Roddon, Koh Samui district chief said.

Photos: AP

But "red flag" warnings banning swimming off what are normally sun-baked paradise beaches at this time of year were still in place.

"It's all over. All 10,000 tourists are safe... I am relieved," Krikkrai Songthanee, district chief of neighbouring Koh Phangan, an island famed for its full-moon parties, told AFP, adding only minor damage had been caused by high winds.

But holidaymakers keen to leave the islands face long delays as transport links are slowly reopened on Saturday.

The storm was downgraded early Saturday to a depression with wind speeds slackening as it moved into the Andaman Sea, the Meteorological Department said.

Pabuk made landfall on Friday afternoon in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, south of the tourist hubs on the Gulf of Thailand, hammering the coastal province with rain.

Authorities warned of flash floods as some parts remained inundated by a combination of rainfall and storm surges.

Around 200,000 people were left without power as dozens of electricity poles were toppled by high winds or falling trees.

Some 30,000 customers remained without power early Saturday, according to an update by the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department.

A similar number of people remained in evacuation shelters, waiting for floods to recede and power to be restored, it added.

Pabuk struck in peak tourist season, a blow to the cash-cow sector that is integral to Thailand's economy.

The kingdom is expected to welcome a record 40 million visitors this year.

Tourists hunker down as Storm Pabuk has Thailand in its sights

Tourists marooned on Thai islands hunkered down Friday as Tropical Storm Pabuk edged closer, forcing airports and ferries to close and bringing downpours and massive sea swells hours before its expected landfall.

Boats were recalled to shore across the Gulf of Thailand, while two key airports - Koh Samui and Nakhon Si Thammarat - were shut until Saturday, leaving tourists who remain on islands now cut off from the mainland.

"Ten thousand tourists are still on Koh Phangan," said Krikkrai Songthanee, district chief of the island which neighbours Samui and is famed for its full-moon party.

"But I talked to foreigners last night and they are not scared, they understand the situation," told AFP.

Pabuk, the first tropical storm in decades to strike during the peak holiday season, is expected to make landfall on Friday evening with the eye passing over Nakhon Si Thammarat further to the south.

"But all tourist islands in the Gulf of Thailand including Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao will be affected because Pabuk is huge," said Phuwieng Prakhammintara, head of the Thai Meteorological Department.

As it churns through the sea, Pabuk has picked up speed with 75-kilometre-an-hour (45 mile) winds stirring huge waves of up to five metres high (16 feet).

Social media videos showed oil rigs being battered by waves, and tankers navigating terrifying walls of water.

Photos: AP

With rains lashing the entire south, the Meteorological Department warned coastal communities to expect "inshore surges" as winds whip up the sea.

Authorities have opened evacuation shelters for vulnerable communities across Thailand's southernmost provinces.

Pabuk is forecast to pass over the narrow neck of land between the Gulf of Thailand and into the Andaman Sea - home to the tourist resorts of Phuket and the Similan National Park, a diving paradise.

Tens of thousands of tourists have already fled the southern zone.

"It's very empty... the beaches are deserted of tourists," Pui Suriwan, a Koh Phangan resident, told AFP.

On neighbouring Koh Tao, one of Southeast Asia's most popular dive spots, tourists and residents were bracing for a torrid 24 hours ahead.

"The weather is turning worse as the winds pick up, I've finished buying supplies... there's no gas anywhere on the island, 7/11 is already running out of things," a Spanish dive instructor told AFP.

"We're ready to bunker down."

Flights into Surat Thani, the gateway to Koh Samui, were nearly empty on Friday morning, a rare sight in Thailand's lucrative peak holiday season.

Thailand's economy is heavily reliant on tourism with the latest figures for 2017 showing the kingdom made nearly $60 billion from the sector.

Tourism was hit hard by a boat accident in Phuket in July last year when scores of Chinese tourists died as their overcrowded boat capsized in heavy seas.

Visitor numbers from China, Thailand's biggest market, slumped after the accident.