FEMA Administrator Brock Long said Sunday morning that President Donald Trump’s tweets on Puerto Rico’s death toll stemming from Hurricane Maria have been misconstrued and taken out of context.
NBC Meet the Press host Chuck Todd questioned Long about a series of tweets the president sent downplaying studies showing nearly 3,000 people died from Maria’s aftermath. Long pushed back against the line of questioning, telling Todd that Trump’s been “taken out of context.”
“FEMA was the first responder and the only responder for many weeks going into Puerto Rico,” he said, adding that, “the numbers are all over the place.”
Long went on to compare an adequate disaster response to a four-legged chair, with the federal response representing but one of the legs. The private sector, local officials, and civilians represent the other three legs, he noted. (RELATED: Puerto Rico Admits Hurricane Death Toll Was 20 Times Higher Than Initially Reported)
Long also criticized the methodology researchers at George Washington University used to determine Puerto Rico’s death toll.
“What happens, even in this event, you might see more deaths indirectly occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress, they fall off their house trying to fix their roof,” he said.
“They die in car crashes because they went through an intersection where the stoplights weren’t working… Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anybody,” Long added.
The report he was alluding to suggestions the previous official count was low because Puerto Rican physicians did not know how to appropriately tally deaths attributed to the storm.
Officials counted those that died as a direct result of the hurricane but left out fatalities stemming from lack of power or access to clean water, according to the study. For perspective, Hurricane Katrina caused severe flooding in New Orleans in 2005 and killed at least 1,833 people.
FEMA assumed Puerto Rican agencies would be capable of restoring the island’s power and telecommunications systems in a reasonably brief time frame. But the island’s rickety power grid failed almost completely, leaving huge swaths of the island without power in what was the largest blackout in U.S. history.
Puerto Rico’s staggering financial ineptitude has not helped matters. The island filed for bankruptcy in May and recently closed 200 schools to save $7 million, while simultaneously issuing 107 consulting contracts questionable recipients since January.
Island officials spent over $256 billion in federal funds from 1990 through 2009, but only collected $74 billion in tax revenue. The U.S. territory is required to prioritize its payments to creditors unless the funds go to essential services.
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