DHAKA, Bangladesh -- The official death toll from the worst typhoon to strike Bangladesh in 20 years stood at nearly 38,000 Thursday but officials said it could reach 200,000 once relief workers can assess the damage in the flooded coastal districts.
Casualty estimates from Tuesday's typhoon continued to spiral upward and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia put the confirmed death toll at 37,542 in a speech over the state-owned Bangladesh television.
Authorities said that figure represented bodies recovered from inland areas where the storm was weakest.
Finance Minister Saifur Rahman, interviewed in Washington by the CNN television network, said Thursday 'past experiences' suggested the death toll might reach 200,000. The 1970 typhoon that hit Bangladesh killed 300,000 people.
Tuesday's typhoon roared in from the Bay of Bengal and quickly engulfed offshore islands and coastal areas.
The Bangladesh navy estimates damage at $1.5 billion and Zia appealed for international assistance.
Neighboring India responded by announcing it was sending three helicopters and $750,000 in relief material.
Officials who asked not to be identified said the relief effort along the hard-hit southeastern coast was making slow progress and without a more intensive effort starvation and disease could claim many more lives.
Saidur Rahman, a representative of the London-based Oxsam relief agency, said he toured Kutubdia near the southeastern town of Cox's Bazar on Wednesday and saw thousands of dead cattle, bloated and decaying in the shallow water still covering much of the island.
Human bodies were seen floating around other stricken islands and relief workers were trying to recover and bury the dead.
Rahman said officials in Kutubdia claimed 20,000 residents missing and that hundreds of thousands of cattle killed by the devastating typhoon, which struck with 146 mph winds and buried several islands with 20-foot tidal waves.
He said Oxsam had workers on Hatiya island but could not reach Sandip island. He said the relief agency's effort was hampered by rough seas and a shortage of motor boats.
The developments came as casualty estimates from the 12 stricken coastal districts continued to spiral upward, with Minister of Communications Oli Ahmed telling Bangladesh radio that at least 25,000 people were killed in Chittagong city alone.
Chittagong, a major port 185 miles south of the capital and the country's second largest city, was one of the areas hardest hit by the typhoon. Telephone lines to the capital remained disrupted by the storm.
The state-owned Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha news agency reported Wednesday night that at least 50,000 people were killed in two districts near the southeastern town of Cox's Bazar, 60 miles south of Chittagong.
An official of the Cox's Bazar District Fishing Crawlers Association said another 15,000 fishermen plus 1,500 boats are missing.
The typhoon submerged several inhabited offshore islands and one lawmaker estimated that 6,000 people had been killed on Sandip island, which was one of the hardest hit.
The official death toll remained low because relief workers have yet to begin counting casualties in the flooded coastal areas.
Observers said the Bangladesh government is partly responsible for the high number of casualties because it did not implement a typhoon protection plan devised after the 1970 storm that killed 300,000 people.
The plan called for building 2,479 three-story storm shelters along the coast for people and a similar number of earthen towers for livestock.
Only 300 shelters and 157 towers had been built when the storm blew in from the bay and despite two days of storm warnings many coastal residents had no where to go.
'We had advance knowledge of what happens during cyclones of this force,' said Waheedul Huq, one of the country's senior journalists. 'But we failed to take the necessary action in the past 22 years.'
From the air, the coast was a stark picture of washed away homes and other buildings, overturned vehicles, submerged rice paddies and drifting, empty fishing boats.