Authorities airlifted food and medicine Wednesday to survivors of a devastating cyclone on Bangladesh's southeastern coast. The official death toll was nearly 3,000, but one report said 25,000 people died.

Tens of thousands of people were reported missing.The United News of Bangladesh news agency, quoting radio messages received in Dhaka, said 25,000 people died in the cyclone, the most powerful ever to strike this impoverished, disaster-prone nation.

Relief Secretary Hishamuddin Ahmed said the number of confirmed killed so far in Tuesday's storm was 2,977.

But most of the deaths were reported from the mainland, and the government had no information of the situation on the islands, he said.

A 1970 storm took 500,000 lives in Bangladesh.

United News of Bangladesh said the islands of Maheshkali, Sandwip, Kutubdia and Chakori, which are strung along the southeastern coast and inhabited by hundreds of thousands of farmers and fishermen, were the hardest hit.

The news agency said its death toll included at least 8,000 people killed on Kutubdia, which is off the coast of Cox's Bazaar, the area that bore the brunt of the storm. At least 70,000 of the island's inhabitants were missing, it said.

Another 7,000 people died in Maheshkali, an island to the south of Kutubdia, the news agency said. In Sandwip, a tear-shaped island off the coast of Chittagong, at least 6,000 people died, it said.

Officials of the Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross, also said the storm mainly hit the islands off Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar.

Communications with much of the region remained cut off about 36 hours after the cyclone thundered in from the Bay of Bengal. A Red Crescent official in Dhaka, the nation's capital, said as many as 5,000 people may have died on the island of Sandwip.

The island is jammed with 300,000 people living in villages and eking out a living from fishing and farming.

The cyclone, with winds up to 145 mph, hammered the coastal districts for eight hours early Tuesday, flooding low-lying areas under waves 20 feet high.

But the storm peaked during low tide, and favorable winds from the northeast blocked the buildup of even higher tidal waves. "Allah saved us," said Ibrahim Khalil, an 82-year-old farmer.

Bangladesh, a low-lying delta country repeatedly punished by the elements, began building shelters and dykes after storms in 1985 and 1970 cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

In Manpura, an island off the ragged southern coastline 110 miles from Dhaka, cyclone warnings were sounded over megaphones and by beating drums.

"When the storm came in darkness I thought I'll never see a day again. Death was so near, but somehow I survived," said Mohammad Kamaluddin, a 13-year-old villager.

Hours before the cyclone hit, 20,000 of the island's 50,000 people found sanctuary in stone shelters erected on earthen platforms.

Officials in Manpura said about half the 8,000 buildings were destroyed, many of them constructed of mud and straw.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, in an appeal for help published in newspapers Wednesday, said 90 percent of the homes in some areas were razed, roads and bridges were severed, and crops and cattle herds lost.

"The damage has been colossal and extensive," she said. "People are in immediate need of food, shelter, pure drinking water, medicine and clothing."

"It might be impossible for the government alone to meet the challenge," said the prime minister, who after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, estimated storm damage at $1 billion. She has been in office for just six weeks.

U.S. Ambassador William B. Milam told the government the United States was donating $2 million in medical supplies.

Contact was lost with large rural areas, where communications are difficult even without a disaster.