Cyclone Devastates Myanmar, 10,000 Feared Dead

The government fears the death toll could reach 10,000.

ByABC News
May 5, 2008, 9:10 AM

May 5, 2008 — -- With the death toll approaching 10,000 from the devastating cyclone that slammed Myanmar on Saturday, U.N. agencies and independent humanitarian groups rushed to prepare assistance for victims.

"The U.N. team has been activated and is ready to supplement the effort of the government in responding to this disaster as soon as they receive visas,"said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In an rare appearance, first lady Laura Bush spoke to the media from the White House briefing room, urging the government of Myanmar to accept aid from the United States. No aid response teams are allowed to enter the country without the government's permssion.

"The government of Burma should accept this team quickly -- as well as other offers of international assistance," she told reporters.

An outspoken critic of Myanmar's ruling military regime, the first lady suggested that it kept critical information about the storm from people in its path.

"Burma's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path," she said. "The response to this cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta's failures to meet its people's basic needs."

The U.S. Embassy in the Southeast Asian nation is immediately providing $250,000 in aid from an existing emergency fund to humanitarian organizations working on the ground, Laura Bush said.

Nearly 4,000 people were killed Saturday by a devastating cyclone that smashed into Myanmar and officials fear it toll could go as high as 10,000.

The death toll is likely to climb sharply because government officials say the storm hit with such force that 3,000 people from a single town cannot be found.

The Foreign Minister of Myanmar, Nyan Win, told foreign diplomats during a briefing that the death toll could reach 10,000, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was held behind closed doors.

It was already a dramatic increase in the toll, which had been set at 351.

"The confirmed number is 3,934 dead, 41 injured and 2,879 missing within the Yangon and Irrawaddy divisions," MRTV reported as aid agencies said hundreds of thousands of people were without shelter and drinking water.

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian country, formerly known as Burma, early Saturday with winds of up to 120 mph.

In capital city Yangon, many roofs were ripped off even sturdy buildings, like hospitals and schools. The city's usually unreliable electricity grid was shut down for the city's 6.5 million people.

The situation in the countryside remained unclear because of poor communications and roads left impassable by the storm, but the damage to Yangon hinted at how severe things might be in the shantytowns that lie on the outskirts of the city.

The radio station broadcasting from the country's capital, Naypyitaw, said that 2,879 people are unaccounted for in the town of Bogalay, in the country's low-lying Irrawaddy River delta area where the storm wreaked the most havoc.

The Irrawaddy area is the country's rice bowl.

One resident in the Irrawaddy town of Laputta told the BBC that up to 80 percent of the town has been destroyed.

"Houses in the residential districts just remain as the skeleton structures. Out of town, 16 villages along the coast have been virtual wiped out," the resident reported.

"It's clear that we're dealing with a very serious situation. The full extent of the impact and needs will require an extensive on-the-ground assessment," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman in Bangkok, Thailand, for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"What is clear at this point is that there are several hundred thousands of people in dire need of shelter and clean drinking water," Horsey said.

Officials from Myanmar's military government met today with representatives of international aid agencies to discuss providing assistance.