Trump disputes Puerto Rico death toll, blames Democrats for making him look bad

U.S. President Donald Trump has rejected without evidence the official conclusion that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico from last year's Hurricane Maria, but the George Washington University researchers who conducted the study are standing by their findings.

Governor raised death toll from 64 to 2,975 last month based on independent study

U.S. President Donald Trump is disputing an independent study that found nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico in the six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

George Washington University researchers are standing by their study that found the death toll following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was 2,975, considerably higher than first thought.

The statement Thursday is in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's tweet rejecting the study's conclusion. Trump argued without evidence that the number was wrong and falsely called it a plot by Democrats to make him "look as bad as possible."

The statement from the Milken Institute School of Public Health said the study was commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico and was carried out "with complete independence and freedom from any kind of interference."

They say their conclusion is the most "accurate and unbiased" assessment of mortality following the storm.

Those hardest hit by the hurricane were the elderly and impoverished.

Social media spat

As Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas, the president picked a fresh fight over the administration's response to the Category 4 storm that smashed into the U.S. territory last September. Trump visited the island in early October to assess the situation amid widespread criticism over the recovery efforts.

Last month, Puerto Rico's governor raised the U.S. territory's official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975, after an independent study found the number of people who succumbed in the aftermath had been severely undercounted.

Previous reports from the Puerto Rican government said the number was closer to 1,400. 

Trump's comments drew swift criticism from elected officials and residents of the island, where blackouts remain common, 60,000 homes still have makeshift roofs and 13 per cent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz, a Democrat who has sparred with Trump, responded to his comments via Twitter.

Speaking to Carol Off, host of CBC Radio's As It Happens, Cruz said Trump's denial was "pathetic" and "shameful."

"It shows how out of tune the president is with reality," said Cruz. "But on the other hand, it's expected. The president shamelessly tries to belittle or put down anything or anyone that does not agree with him and his alternative reality." 

Cruz said that rather than tweeting, the president should be paying attention to Hurricane Florence, which is poised to batter North Carolina and South Carolina.

God bless those people if the president of the United States did not learn anything from his neglect and his inefficiency and the bureaucracy that ensued over Puerto Rico.- Carmen Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico

"So God bless those people if the president of the United States did not learn anything from his neglect and his inefficiency and the bureaucracy that ensued over Puerto Rico."

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a Facebook post in Spanish, "the victims of Puerto Rico, and the people of Puerto Rico in general, do not deserve to be questioned about their pain."

Rossello said he left the analysis of the deaths in the hands of experts and accepted their estimate as the official death toll. "I trust that this process was carried out properly," he said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott also disagreed with Trump, adding: "The loss of any life is tragic; the extent of lives lost as a result of Maria is heart wrenching."

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he had "no reason to dispute" the study that found nearly 3,000 people on the island had died as a result of the storm.

"Casualties don't make a person look bad," Ryan told reporters at a regular news conference, "so I have no reason to dispute these numbers."

Ryan said he had been in Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit and it had been "devastating. This was a horrible storm."

'Unsung success'

Trump began to focus on Hurricane Florence earlier this week, calling for an Oval Office briefing with the director of FEMA. When a reporter asked Trump about Maria in the Oval Office, he swiftly unleashed a fact-challenged defence of his response to the hurricane. That led the cable news coverage that evening.

Local residents ride a horse by a destroyed building on Oct. 4, 2017, after Hurricane Maria hit the town of Jayuya. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The Milken Institute study said the original estimates were so low because doctors on the island had not been trained to properly classify deaths after a natural disaster.

The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention provides doctors with a set of recommendations for counting such deaths as those caused by natural disasters, but the guidelines were almost never followed by Puerto Rican doctors in the chaos after the storm.

Puerto Rico's government, which is neither Republican nor Democratic, but run by the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood, Puerto Rico-only party, accepted the 2,975 number as a legitimate estimate of the storm's true toll. 

Throughout the week, Trump has defended his administration's efforts in Puerto Rico as an "incredible, unsung success," renewing his spat with San Juan mayor Cruz.

Hurricane Maria hit last year as the Trump administration was feeling positive about the handling of massive hurricanes in Florida and Texas last summer. Then came Maria and devastation in Puerto Rico, where a slow federal response was complicated by logistical concerns and pre-existing economic and infrastructure deficiencies on the island territory.

'Worst natural disaster'

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello seized on Trump's use of the word "successful" and said in a statement, "No relationship between a colony and the federal government can ever be called 'successful' because Puerto Ricans lack certain inalienable rights enjoyed by our fellow Americans in the states." 

Cars drive under a partially collapsed utility pole weeks after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria last September. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Its inhabitants are U.S. citizens, though they are barred from voting in presidential elections and have only one congressional representative with limited voting powers.

Rossello said Maria was "the worst natural disaster in our modern history," and that work remained before the island could move on to other stages of recovery. He also said he was waiting for Trump to respond to a petition to help Puerto Rico complete work on emergency housing restoration programs and debris removal.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said Trump "dishonours the living and the dead" with his baseless claim.

'The emperor has no clothes'

She said Trump's presidency is "the theater of the absurd every day."

Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring from Congress after 13 terms, said people in the White House need to tell him that "the emperor has no clothes occasionally."

Another Florida Republican, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, also criticized Trump for saying the federal response to Hurricane Maria was one of the best in history. Curbelo said he sees no basis for that claim.

Trump, who has struggled to express public empathy in times of national crisis, sparked outrage during his post-Maria visit to Puerto Rico when he feuded with San Juan's mayor and passed out paper towels to victims like he was shooting baskets.

Trump later said Puerto Ricans were fortunate that Maria was not a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast. All told, about 1,800 people died in that 2005 storm.

With files from CBC News and Reuters.


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