The death toll from the massive cyclone that wreaked havoc and destruction in Myanmar over the weekend is expected to climb as high as 10,000, the country’s foreign minister told the United Nations.

The cyclone that ravaged Myanmar, formerly Burma, the number of dead rapidly rose to 4,000. But if the estimates prove accurate, the death toll would be the highest of any natural disaster to hit Asia since the tsunami in December 2005, which killed 181,000.

Myanmar cabinet ministers, including foreign minister, Nyan Win, initially announced at a briefing that the death toll was dramatically higher than the 351 people killed that officials originally estimated Sunday, according to Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the United Nations disaster response office in Bangkok.

“What is clear is that we are dealing with a major emergency situation, and the priority needs now are shelter and clean drinking water,” Horsey said.

Cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy Delta and the country’s main city, Yangon (Rangoon), early on Saturday, leaving hundreds of thousands of its citizens homeless and scrambling to find food and clean water.

The Myanmar government, which traditionally restricts the movement of foreign groups in the country, including those providing assistance, gave the green light for the United Nations to send emergency aid to the country, said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Programme.

The country’s ruling Junta, which has spurned the international community for decades, appealed to the international community for aid on Monday.

But the US State Department said Myanmar’s government had not granted permission for a Disaster Assistance Response Team into the country, the Associated Press reported.

Assessment teams have been sent to the most ravaged areas to assess the damage and determine the most pressing emergency needs, said Laura Blank, a spokeswoman for World Vision.

“Stories get worse by the hour,” a Yangon resident wrote via e-mail.

“No drinking water in many areas, still no power. Houses completely disappeared. Refugees scavenging for food in poorer areas. Roofing, building supplies, tools, all are scarce and prices skyrocketing on everything.”

The World Food Programme is preparing to send 500 tons of food into Yangon and intends to send in more relief supplies, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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