60,000 Dead or Missing in Burma

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Burma's government is now calling for international help in getting aid to victim's of this weekend's deadly cyclone. The death toll is estimated at at least 15,000 and could continue to go higher. Video by AP

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By Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

BANGKOK, May 6 -- The number of dead and missing in the Burma cyclone soared past 60,000 Tuesday amid signs the toll will rise even higher, as much of the disaster zone remained flooded by seawater, threatened by disease and out of reach of an international relief operation that is taking shape.

President Bush offered to send U.S. Navy units to help in the operation, and sharply criticized Burma's military-run government for delays in approving visas for emergency teams. Burmese dissident groups took issue with the timing of the administration's criticism, suggesting it could complicate the relief effort.

Emergency supplies began arriving by air in wind-battered Rangoon, the largest city in Burma. But little or no aid reached the Irrawaddy Delta, a vast and low-lying rice-producing region that absorbed the storm's worst fury. Satellite photos showed catastrophic flooding of fields and villages as far inland as 35 miles.

A tidal wave that accompanied the cyclone was more deadly than the winds, Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told reporters in Rangoon. "The wave was up to 12 feet high, and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages," he said. "They did not have anywhere to flee."

Speaking at a brief ceremony in the Oval Office to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's detained democracy advocate, Bush said: "Our message to the military rulers is, 'Let the U.S. come and help you help the people.' "

"We're prepared to help move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing and to help stabilize the situation," Bush said. Two Navy ships are conducting disaster response exercises two days' sailing from the storm-ravaged area.

The United States also offered $3 million in emergency aid Tuesday, up from $250,000 pledged on Monday. In addition, the Treasury Department loosened restrictions on charity groups to allow them to go into Burma without prior U.S. permission.

The president's statement came shortly after Burma's state television reported that 22,000 people had been killed and more than 40,000 people rendered missing by Tropical Cyclone Nargis, which smacked into the country over the weekend. An estimated 1 million survivors are said to be in urgent need of relief supplies, notably in the delta.

Packing winds of about 120 mph, Nargis was the deadliest cyclone to strike in Asia since a 1991 storm killed 143,000 in Bangladesh.

"When you look at the satellite picture of before and after the storm, the effects look even worse than Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in how it inundated low-lying areas," Ken Reeves, director of forecasting operations for AccuWeather.com, said in a statement. "It took the worst possible path in terms of sustaining strength. . . . The interaction of water and land lying right at sea level allowed the tidal surge to deliver maximum penetration of seawater over land."

Relief supplies from India, Thailand and other Asian neighbors have begun to arrive in Burma. A Royal Thai Air Force C-130 transport plane landed in Rangoon on Tuesday carrying bottled water, emergency meals and other badly needed items.

Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that while the Burmese military has made some helicopters and boats available, far more transportation, including trucks and boats, will be needed. "The major bottleneck will be the local delivery, rather than getting stuff into the Rangoon airport," Horsey said. "We need distribution channels."


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