One day after an independent report confirmed that the number of deaths in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was nearly 3,000 more than the government had previously reported, President Donald Trump claimed the U.S. government had done a “fantastic” job in helping the island in its recovery efforts.
“I think we did a fantastic job ... most of the people in Puerto Rico really appreciate what we’ve done,” Trump said Wednesday during a press conference.
On Tuesday, a report from researchers at George Washington University had claimed for the first time that the number of casualties from the storm was an estimated 2,975 — far higher than the 64 deaths the island’s government had initially reported.
The storm devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, downed the power grid for months and decimated access to clean drinking water for thousands of residents. Journalists and medical professionals on the island had warned there were thousands more dead than what was being claimed.
In October, a Buzzfeed News report cited funeral home directors who said the number of bodies coming to their facilities did not square with the government’s death toll. Days later, Karixia Ortiz Serrano, a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety, told BuzzFeed News that the death toll was actually 911, and that all of the civilians counted in that number had died of “natural causes.”
On Tuesday, the George Washington report confirmed that the government’s initial count of 64 deaths had been low because only deaths directly attributable to the storm — those caused by “structural collapse, flying debris, floods and drownings” — had been classified as official hurricane casualties.
In spite of Trump’s praise, the government’s handling of the storm and its aftermath drew widespread criticism as it was unfolding. During a visit with island officials just weeks after the storm made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Trump joked that the FEMA aid money the government had allocated for recovery efforts had “thrown our budget a little out of whack,” and downplayed the severity of the storm’s impact. Later that day, he also courted controversy as he jocularly tossed paper towels and other supplies out to weary Americans assembled in a Puerto Rican church to receive aid.
While he acknowledged that “every death is a horror,” Trump also made comments during his visit that the hurricane’s devastation did not come close to a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, where “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of Americans died.
Trump has not addressed the issue on Twitter, his preferred platform to communicate with the public, other than to speak glowingly of the federal government’s role in the relief efforts.
At Tuesday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s response to the disaster, saying he “remains proud of all the work the federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.”
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz quickly fired back.
“Two thousand nine hundred and seventy-five dead,” Cruz told BuzzFeed News. Is that what he’s proud of? This will be a stain in his presidency for as long as he lives. Because rather than coming here to support us, he came here to throw paper towels at us, and we will never forget and we will always remember.”