FEMA Head Defends Trump on Criticism of Puerto Rico Hurricane Death Toll Figure

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
September 16, 2018Updated: October 5, 2018

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long is defending President Donald Trump’s criticism of Puerto Rico’s official figure for deaths caused by Hurricane Maria.

Long said Trump, who says the death toll was improperly inflated to defame his administration, was defending the work FEMA has done in Puerto Rico.

Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, and caused massive damage to the island’s already dilapidated infrastructure.

After several updates, the territory government set the official death toll at 64. More fatalities had been expected, and the government hired a team from George Washington University to review the number based on death certificates and a more in-depth research.

The study was published on Aug. 28 and estimated 2,975 “excess deaths” due to Maria. The Puerto Rican government, led by Democrat Ricardo Rosselló, used the figure as the official death toll.

But the study (pdf) didn’t count individual deaths—it compared mortality in years before and after the hurricane. It estimated that mortality in the six months from September 2017 to February 2018 increased by about 20-24 percent. It then attributed all the “excess” deaths to the hurricane.

Trump wrote in a Sept. 13 tweet: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. 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.”

“This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” he said in a subsequent tweet. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!”

Harvard University published another study on May 29, which estimated the increased mortality translated into 793 to 8498 additional deaths in Puerto Rico from Sept. 20 through Dec. 31, 2017. It was based on a survey of 3,299 random households.

“The numbers are all over the place,” Long told NBC News’ Chuck Todd on Sunday. He said the focus should be on deaths directly caused by the disaster.

“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,” he said. The deaths caused indirectly, on the other hand, are harder to attribute.

“You might see more deaths occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress, they fall off their house trying to fix their roof, they die in car crashes because they went through an intersection when the stop lights weren’t working,” he said.

The Harvard study stated the primary cause of high mortality rates in the months post-hurricane was due to interruption to medical care.

“Growing numbers of persons have chronic diseases and use sophisticated pharmaceutical and mechanical support that is dependent on electricity,” the authors wrote.

Electricity was a major problem even before the hurricane. In 2016, the average Puerto Rican saw 4.5 power outages that took an average of 3 hours to fix (pdf). A 2016 study (pdf) found the “generation and transmission infrastructure literally falling apart.” Maria almost completely wiped the grid out.

FEMA organized the major workforce for fixing the grid, having over 2,000 Army Corps of Engineers personnel working on the repairs.

Long appreciated that Trump stood behind FEMA’s work.

“He is probably the one president that has had more support for what goes on back here,” he said, pointing to the FEMA employees working behind him. “I think he’s defensive because he knows how hard these guys behind me work day in and day out for a very complex situation.”