The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s roundly criticized denial of the official death toll in Puerto Rico from last year’s Hurricane Maria.
An estimated 2,975 people lost their lives in the storm and in its aftermath, according to a recently released study commissioned by Puerto Rico’s government and conducted by researchers at George Washington University. Puerto Rico officials adopted the figure as the official number of deaths linked to the storm.
But FEMA administrator Brock Long, when asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether his agency accepts that death count, said that “the numbers are all over the place.”
“FEMA doesn’t count deaths,” Long told host Chuck Todd.
Referring to the storm now battering North and South Carolina, he added that “if you take what’s going on with [Hurricane] Florence, the deaths that are verified by the local county coroners are the ones that we take.”
Trump sparked an intense backlash on Thursday when he accused Democrats of making up “really large numbers” of deaths in Puerto Rico to make him “look as bad as possible.”
No evidence has emerged to support his claim that Democrats had anything to do with the GWU report.
Long, a Trump appointee who assumed office in June 2017, did not condemn the president’s outlandish accusation when asked by Todd if he believes the numerous studies that have found that several thousand people died because of Hurricane Maria’s devastation were an effort to hurt Trump’s reputation.
“I don’t know why the studies were done,” Long said. “I think what we’re trying to do ― in my opinion, what we’ve got to do ― is figure out why people die from direct deaths, which is the wind, the water and the waves, buildings collapsing.”
The Puerto Rican government revised Hurricane Maria’s official death toll from 64 to 2,975 last month following the GWU study’s release. Independent investigations conducted separately by The New York Times, Penn State University and Harvard University also estimated Maria’s death toll to be in the thousands.
Still, Long claimed the studies’ findings were “all over the place” and “frustrating.”
He praised Trump’s support for FEMA, adding that the president was being “defensive” about the death toll reports because “he knows how hard these guys behind me work.”
“There’s just too much blame going around,” he added. “And we need to be focused … on what is Puerto Rico going to look like tomorrow.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.