Without evidence, Trump disputes Puerto Rico's reported hurricane death toll


Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria are seen in Lares, Puerto Rico, October 2017.


Lucas Jackson/Reuters

US President Donald Trump on Thursday disputed Puerto Rico's official death toll of 3,000 from last year's Hurricane Maria and accused Democrats, without providing evidence, of inflating the figures to make him look bad.

"3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. ... As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000," Trump wrote on Twitter. "This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible ..."

Trump's statement came after San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a vocal critic of US President Donald Trump's treatment of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, rejected his characterization of the administration's response as being an "unsung success."

Cruz told Reuters on Wednesday that people facing Hurricane Florence could die unless Trump learned lessons a year ago when Maria slammed into the US commonwealth.

"The world has seen and the majority of the American people have seen how neglectful he was towards the people of Puerto Rico. If he calls a success or an unsung success 3,000 people dying by his watch, definitely he doesn’t know what success is," Cruz said.

"If he thinks this is about him and about politics and about positioning himself, he is going to make the same mistakes and people will die as they did die in Puerto Rico," she said.

Despite facing criticism of his efforts, Trump on Tuesday said his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in 2017 was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done,” as well as “an incredible unsung success.”

Rising toll

Puerto Rico's official death toll from Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the Caribbean island in almost a century, was raised in August from 64, a number widely discounted as far too low, to nearly 3,000, based on a study ordered by the governor of the US territory.

The report found that an estimated 2,975 deaths could be attributed directly or indirectly to Maria from the time it struck in September 2017 to mid-February of this year.

By comparison, deaths blamed on Hurricane Katrina in 2005 range from about 1,200 to more than 1,800, most along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi.

The latest Puerto Rico figure was derived from comparisons between predicted mortality under normal circumstances and deaths documented after the storm, a number that turned out to be 22 percent higher. 

Researchers said they adjusted for various factors that could account for fluctuations in mortality, most notably the displacement of some 241,000 residents who fled the island in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

They also found that the poor and elderly were disproportionately hard hit in terms of risk of fatalities.

The emergency response to Maria became highly politicized as the Trump administration was castigated as being slow to recognize the gravity of the devastation and too sluggish in providing disaster relief to Puerto Rico, an island of more than 3 million residents.

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