WASHINGTON – First lady Laura Bush urged the government of Myanmar to quickly accept U.S. and international relief on Monday, hours after officials estimated as many as 10,000 deaths could result from a tropical cyclone that hit the country this weekend.
Speaking with reporters, she also continued her strong criticism of the Myanmar government, and said that President Bush will sign a bill on Tuesday to award a Congressional Gold Medal to one of the regime's chief critics — Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The aftermath has left cities paralyzed, families separated and houses and businesses destroyed. Americans are a compassionate people, and we are already acting to provide help," Laura Bush said. That aid is coming in the form of a $250,000 emergency authorization from the State Department.
Saying "more assistance will be forthcoming," and using the name of the country used before the current regime took power, Laura Bush said it is contingent on the Myanmar government to first accept help, which it has been reluctant to do in the past.
"The United States stands prepared to provide an assistance team and much-needed supplies to Burma as soon as the Burmese government accept our offer. The government of Burma should accept this team quickly as well as other offers of international assistance," she said.
Asked how much disaster aid the Bush administration is willing to provide, the first lady did not cite specifics. "I feel assured that it would be substantial," she said.
A State Department spokesman said Monday that Myanmar had not granted that permission yet. In the meantime, the Bush administration is weighing a broader relief response in Myanmar. The death toll is currently about 4,000 with another 3,000 missing.
The ruling junta in Myanmar, a country also known as Burma, has spurned the international community for decades but has now appealed for aid.
Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar early Saturday with winds of up to 120 mph, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
"We're in the process of assessing what more we could provide," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. "It's something that we're taking a very close look at."
Myanmar is not known to have an adequate disaster warning system and many rural buildings are constructed of thatch, bamboo and other materials easily destroyed by fierce storms.
Laura Bush also criticized the government for not putting out an adequate warning, despite knowing of the looming threat. She said residents only learned of the coming storm through U.S. government-supported foreign news oulets like Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.