Myanmar's military government raised its death toll from Cyclone Nargis on Tuesday to nearly 22,500 with a further 41,000 missing, nearly all of them from a massive storm surge that swept into the Irrawaddy delta.
Of the dead, only 671 were in the former capital, Yangon, and its outlying districts, state radio said, confirming Nargis as the most devastating cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh.
"More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself," Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told a news conference in the rubble-strewn city of five million, where food and water supplies are running low.
"The wave was up to 12 feet (3.5 metres) high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages," he said, giving the first detailed description of the weekend cyclone. "They did not have anywhere to flee."
Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said the military were "doing their best", but analysts said there could be fallout for the former Burma's rulers, who pride themselves on their ability to cope with any challenge.
"The myth they have projected about being well-prepared has been totally blown away," said analyst Aung Naing Oo, who fled to Thailand after a brutally crushed 1988 uprising. "This could have a tremendous political impact in the long term."
The first batch of more than $10 million worth of foreign aid arrived on Tuesday, but a lack of specialised equipment slowed distribution.
US President George W Bush urged the regime to accept US aid workers who have so far have been kept out, and said the United States stood ready to "do a lot more" to help.
"The military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country," Bush told reporters, adding he was prepared to make US naval assets available for search and rescue.
Reflecting the scale of the disaster, the junta said it would postpone to May 24 a constitutional referendum in the worst-hit areas of Yangon and the sprawling delta.
However, state TV said the May 10 vote on the charter, part of the army's much-criticised "roadmap to democracy", would proceed as planned in the rest of the southeast Asian nation, which has been under army rule for the last 46 years.
Its political plans have been slammed by Western governments, especially after the army's bloody suppression of Buddhist-monk led protests last September.
SEVERAL HUNDRED THOUSAND HOMELESS
Earlier, Foreign Minister Nyan Win said on state television that 10,000 people had died just in Bogalay, a town 90 km (50 miles) southwest of Yangon.
However, the government lifted states of emergency in three of the five states declared official disaster zones and some parts of the worst-hit Yangon and Irrawaddy regions. Nearly half Myanmar's 53 million people live in the five hit states.
The Information Minister also said the government had sufficient stocks of rice despite damage to grain stored in the huge delta, known as the "rice bowl of Asia" 50 years ago when Burma was the world's largest exporter.
The total left homeless by the 190 km (120 miles) per hour winds and storm surge is in the several hundred thousands, United Nations aid officials say.
Even in delta villages that managed to withstand the worst of the winds, food and water is running low. "There's not much food," one woman at a pineapple stall in Hlaing Tha Yar, an hour's drive west of Yangon, told Reuters. "The price of a cabbage is now 1,000 kyats instead of 250."
In Yangon itself, people queued up for bottled water and there was still no electricity four days after the cyclone hit.
Prices of food, fuel and construction materials have skyrocketed, and most shops have sold out of candles and batteries. An egg costs three times what it did on Friday.
The disaster drew a rare acceptance of outside help from the diplomatically isolated generals, who spurned such approaches in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Thailand flew in nine tonnes of food and medicine, the first foreign aid shipment, but a Reuters cameraman on the plane said supplies were unloaded by hand as no forklift trucks were available -- a worrying sign of the army's lack of vital kit.
Two Indian transport planes are due to fly in early on Wednesday and more are on standby, New Delhi said.
State media have made much of the army's response, showing footage of soldiers manhandling tree trunks or top generals climbing into helicopters or greeting homeless storm victims in Buddhist temples.
Aid agency World Vision in Australia said it had been granted special visas to send in personnel to back up 600 staff in the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
"This is massive. It is not necessarily quite tsunami level, but in terms of impact of millions displaced, thousands dead, it is just terrible," World Vision Australia head Tim Costello said.
"Organisations like ours have been given permission, which is pretty unprecedented, to fly people in. This shows how grave it is in the Burmese government's mind," he said.