WASHINGTON – The White House said Tuesday the U.S. will send more than $3 million to help victims of the devastating cyclone in Myanmar, up from an initial emergency contribution of $250,000.
The additional commitment of funds, announced by press secretary Dana Perino, comes as Myanmar continues to resist entry for a U.S. disaster assessment team. The Bush administration insists that permission for such a team to enter the Southeast Asian nation and look at the damage would allow quicker and larger aid contributions.
In the meantime, the decision was made to funnel $3 million more to the disaster-stricken zone. Perino said the money would be allocated by a USAID disaster response team that is currently positioned in neighboring Thailand.
Citing United Nation estimates, Perino said the most urgent needs included plastic sheeting, water purification tablets, mosquito nets, food and emergency health kits.
The death toll from Tropical Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has soared above 22,000. The storm hit early Saturday with winds of up to 120 mph and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
"For Americans who want to assist the people of Burma, we encourage you to make cash donations" to reputable non-governmental groups, she said.
Earlier Tuesday, President Bush called on Myanmar's military junta to allow the team in.
"The United States has made an initial aid contribution but we want to do a lot more," Bush said in the Oval Office. "We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country."
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. military is ready to move Navy ships to Myanmar but will not do that until assistance is authorized. The Navy said it would take the ships about four days to make the trip.
The U.S. Navy has three ships in the Gulf of Thailand that could be dispatched to Myanmar if needed. The USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship, as well as two other vessels in its strike group — the USS Juneau and the USS Harper's Ferry — are there preparing to participate in an annual exercise with Thailand naval forces.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said a variety of Navy ships are within reach of Myanmar, including two aircraft carriers — the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Nimitz — as well as a command ship, the USS Blue Ridge, with the capability to coordinate the movement and activities of naval vessels.
Morrell said the USS Essex amphibious assault ship has 23 helicopters aboard, including 19 that are capable of lifting cargo from ship to shore. The Essex group also has 1,800 Marines aboard, he said.
First lady Laura Bush on Monday appeared to link the provision of additional aid, beyond the initial infusion of $250,000 from a U.S. Embassy emergency fund, to entry permission for the assessment team.
But White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said additional help was never conditional on the regime allowing the assessment team in. The government's permission would just allow "more aid, more quickly."
Said Perino: "If we can't get in, we're going to have a harder time helping people."
In France, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also expressed regret over Myanmar's policy on international aid, saying the country insists only on aid that the government would distribute itself and has spurned French as well as U.S. offers of personnel. Kouchner, co-founder of French aid group Doctors Without Borders, said he had applied for a visa to travel to Myanmar to help coordinate, but was highly doubtful it would be granted.
President Bush spoke at a ceremony where he signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
"This is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman who speaks for freedom for all the people of Burma and who speaks in such a way that she's a powerful voice, in contrast to the junta that currently rules the country," Bush said.