YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar struggled Monday to recover from a cyclone that the government said killed more than 10,000 people in just one town, confirming fears of a spiraling death toll.
Tens of thousands of people were homeless, and food and water were running short. Twelve-foot tidal surges and high winds swept away bamboo homes in low-lying coastal regions, cutting off electricity and water in the country's largest city.
"The government misled people. They could have warned us about the severity of the coming cyclone so we could be better prepared," said Thin Thin, a grocery store owner.
The casualty count was rising quickly as authorities reach hard-hit islands and villages in the Irrawaddy delta, the country's major rice-producing region, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Nargis' 120 mph winds when the storm swept through early Saturday. The official media said that 10,000 people were killed in Bogalay in the Irrawaddy delta.
If the numbers are accurate, the death toll would be the highest from a natural disaster in Asia since the tsunami of December 2004, which devastated South Asia coastlines and claimed about 230,000 lives.
Myanmar (MEE-ahn-mahr) officials said they would open the doors of their closed and tightly controlled nation to international relief groups. The appeal for outside assistance was unusual for Myanmar's ruling generals, who have long been suspicious of international organizations. The first 10-ton shipment was scheduled to arrive from Thailand today.
The country's military leaders also said they would proceed with a constitutional referendum on Saturday that would cement their grip on power. "It's only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote," an official statement said Monday.
U.S. first lady Laura Bush, in a rare White House question-and-answer session, chastised Myanmar's leaders for plans to proceed with the vote, saying it would give "false legitimacy to their continued rule."
The White House announced that the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar had made $250,000 in emergency funds available immediately for relief efforts, but officials weren't certain that the government would accept the offer. The aid probably would be channeled through U.N. agencies, and not delivered directly to the Myanmar government, because of U.S. sanctions on the military junta.
Witnesses and residents said the military had been slow to respond to the devastation of the cyclone, and some suggested the government's performance could affect the vote in the referendum. Residents said that they were being pressured to vote "yes" and that riot police officers had been patrolling the streets before the cyclone in a show of force that was more visible than their relief efforts afterward.
Some in Yangon complained that the 400,000-strong military was only clearing streets where the ruling elite resided, while leaving residents, including Buddhist monks, to cope on their own against the huge tangles of uprooted trees. Many of the displaced residents in the mostly Buddhist nation were taking shelter in temple pagodas.
The Irrawaddy River delta region is home to nearly half of the nation's 48-million people, according to Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. disaster response office in Bangkok. Many villages there are accessible only by boat or helicopter. Much of the region is former swampland that was converted during British colonial times into one of the world's largest rice-growing areas.
The government initially estimated on Sunday that 350 people were killed.
A spokesman for the World Food Program said the government of Myanmar, which severely restricts the movements and activities of foreign groups, had given the U.N. permission to send in emergency aid. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said he had mobilized a disaster assessment team to determine Myanmar's most urgent needs.
Nine months ago, security forces fired into crowds to disperse huge pro-democracy demonstrations led by monks, killing dozens of people, and in the months since the government has carried out a campaign of arrests and intimidation.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.
Information from the Associated Press, New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.