(CBS/AP) The first U.S. relief airlift has arrived in Myanmar carrying emergency supplies for last week's cyclone victims.
A military C-130 cargo plane left a Thai air force base Monday and landed in Myanmar's biggest city Yangon. Two more air shipments scheduled to land Tuesday.
After the plane's arrival, the supplies were transferred to Myanmar army trucks.
A U.S. Navy commander said later Monday that three ships were sailing toward Myanmar, ready to aid cyclone victims if they are given permission.
Vice Admiral Doug Crowder said the ships were currently in the Bay of Bengal.
"We have three of our amphibious ships that are part of the 7th fleet that are headed that way right now," he told reporters in Jakarta.
Allowing the U.S. flight was a huge concession by Myanmar's military government, which sees Washington as its enemy. The junta has also generally refused to allow international relief experts and slowed down U.N. aid delivery.
The operation's spokesman, Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, says the plane is unarmed and is carrying aid supplies including mosquito nets, blankets and water. He says the aid is from the U.S. government, not the military.
The death toll from the killer storm jumped to nearly 29,000 Sunday amid warnings that the military rulers, who have ruled the isolated nation with an iron fist for nearly four decades, were creating a "humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions."
Another 30,000 people are thought to be missing. The U.N. estimates at least 1.5 million have been severely affected by Nargis, with many still struggling to receive rations of food and clean water.
Sarah Ireland, of OXFAM, said "we know that there will be at least 100,000 dead," and she reiterated the U.N. estimate that 1.5 million survivors were at immediate risk from water-born diseases, other public health issues and lack of shelter.
The junta has been sharply criticized for its handling of the May 3 disaster, from failing to provide adequate warnings about the pending storm to responding slowly to offers of help.
CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey reports video showing entire families trapped together under the rubble of their homes has lent credence to claims that the junta told people at a critical time the storm was passing, and there was no need to seek shelter.
Though international assistance has started trickling in, the few foreign relief workers who have been allowed entry into Myanmar have been restricted to the largest city of Yangon. Only a handful have succeeded in getting past checkpoints into the worst-affected areas.
Pizzey says there have also been reports that the military rulers of Myanmar have appeared on state-run television handing out boxes of aid provided by foreign countries, on which they had signed their own names.
Myanmar's military rulers are especially suspicious of Washington, which has long been one of the junta's biggest critics, pointing to human rights abuses and its failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
"We hope that this is the beginning of a long line of assistance from the United States," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters in Crawford, Texas over the weekend. "They're going to need our help for a long time."
"Today's flight is just the first step and we hope they will allow us to do more in the future. It's really just up to what the Burmese will allow us to do," said Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, U.S. Marines spokesman for the operation.
The colonel said the United States had 11,000 servicemen and four ships in the region for an annual military exercise, Cobra Gold, which could be harnessed to help in the mercy mission.
Highlighting the many challenges ahead, however, a Red Cross boat carrying rice, drinking water and other goods for more than 1,000 people sank Sunday near hard-hit Bogalay town. All four aid workers on board were safe.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies could not say how much of the cargo was lost, but it said the food supplies were contaminated by river water.
"Apart from the delay in getting aid to people we may now have to re-evaluate how we transport that aid," said Michael Annear, the IFRC's disaster manager in Yangon, who described the sinking as "a big blow."
Other aid was increasingly getting through, the group said, but on "nowhere near the scale required."
Heavy showers were forecast for the coming week, further complicating delivery of aid that is still barely reaching victims in the Irrawaddy delta, which was pounded by 120 mph per hour winds and 12-foot-high storm surges from the sea.
In hard hit Laputta, hundreds of survivors crowded the floor of a monastery's open-air hall, the sound of hungry children wailing. Many people tried to sleep sitting up because of lack of space.
Pain Na Kon, a tiny nearby village of just 300, was completely obliterated.
The only 12 known survivors - including 6-year-old Mien Mien, who lost both her parents - huddled together in a tent set up in a rice field, sharing a small portion of biscuits and watery soup handed out at a local monastery.
"We are family now," said U Nyo, a man in his 30s, his eyes red and watery. "We are from the same place. We are together."
Even Yangon, further inland, was crowded with refugees and its own homeless from the storm.
"People are sleeping in the open or in one of thousands of flimsy shelters dotted around the city," the Red Cross quoted one of its workers saying. "I saw one group perched on a piece of land straddling a field of fetid water among goats, pigs, buffalos and dogs."
As the bloated bodies rise and fall with the current, women scrub clothes along the bank of the Pyapon river, villagers bathe to cool themselves and a lone child sits on a dock staring aimlessly into the water.
Those unable to escape the catastrophic cyclone that pounded Myanmar's rice-growing Irrawaddy delta a week ago continue to litter the flooded landscape. But with little aid still getting through to desperate survivors, the dead have largely been abandoned - left to decay where the brackish waters carried them or waiting to be pulled out to sea by the rising tides.
"The first few we saw, we were all very shocked," said U Pinyatale, a monk from the area who has prayed for the dead.
"After a while, there were just too many."
More than 50 bodies can be spotted in just three hours on the river. Many have turned white as they float entwined in mangrove trees, where they remain lodged. The smell of dead fish permeates the humid air as dozens of small boats ferrying roofing supplies and rice navigate around the corpses, but no one seems to notice.
"In some areas there are 5,000 bodies in waterways, stuck in fields and in the trees," said Craig Strathern, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city. "We've got a combination of seriously traumatized people themselves who are concentrating on their basic survival."
Myanmar's state television said Sunday the death toll from Cyclone Nargis had gone up by about 5,000 to 28,458 - with another 33,416 missing - though some experts said it could be 15 times that if people do not get clean water and sanitation soon.
"A natural disaster is turning into a humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions in significant part because of the malign neglect of the regime," said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
"I would be amazed if there hadn't been about 100,000 who had died already ... what's more, hundreds of thousands more are at risk," he told British Broadcasting Corp. television.