Tuesday, November 13, 2018
  • The Buzz
  • From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida officials respond to Trump’s claim, without evidence, that Puerto Rico deaths are made up

President Donald Trump on Thursday claimed, without evidence, that Democrats made up a new report estimating that nearly 3,000 Americans living in Puerto Rico died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The comment did not go over well in Florida, home to a large Puerto Rican-American population and thousands of displaced island residents. Even some of Trump's staunchest Republican defenders swiftly rebuked the president's claim.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted: "I disagree with @POTUS," using the acronym for "President of the United States." "An independent study said thousands were lost and (Puerto Rico) Gov. (Ricardo) Rosselló agreed. I've been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand."

That came after Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, asserted, "It's beyond dispute that our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico did NOT get all the help they needed from the Trump administration in the wake of Hurricane Maria."

Scott and Nelson are neck-in-neck in a Senate race that could determine who controls Congress' upper chamber. Both have made outreach to Florida's growing Puerto Rican population a focus of their campaigns.

Likewise, the candidates running for Florida governor quickly responded to Trump's attempts to undermine the latest death toll.

"No death is partisan and our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico deserved better from @realDonaldTrump before, during, and after the hurricane," Democratic nominee and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum tweeted.

Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor and a frequent defender of the president, disagreed with Trump's assessment. DeSantis spokesman Stephen Lawson said the former congressman "doesn't believe any loss of life has been inflated."

"Ron is focused on continuing to help our Puerto Rican neighbors recover and create opportunities for those who have moved to Florida succeed," Lawson said.

In the year since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the turmoil on the island. His defiant defense of his administration's response has ramped up in recent days as the East Coast braces for another storm: Hurricane Florence.

In a Tuesday press update on Florence, he called his administration's response to Maria an "unsung success," while also falsely claiming Puerto Rico "had no electricity essentially before the storm."

As Florence approached the Carolinas Thursday morning, Trump's frustrations over persistent Maria criticism boiled over on Twitter, where he floated a new conspiracy about the updated death toll: "This was done by Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible."

Trump said the number of deaths when he visited Puerto Rico after the storm was "from 6 to 18," even though news outlets were already reporting dozens, if not hundreds, of additional casualties that were likely uncounted.

Some outlets, for example, called Puerto Rico funeral homes and discovered far more deaths than initially reported.

A report from George Washington University and the University of Puerto Rico concluded on Aug. 29 that 2,975 likely died as a result of Hurricane Maria and the catastrophic conditions on the U.S. territory after the storm. Much of the island remained without electricity and running water for months after Maria hit, and many residents died while waiting for help.

To reach that conclusion, researchers analyzed death certificates and other reports from September 2017 through February 2018 and compared it to typical death rates for that time period and other historical patterns.

Trump said, "3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico" adding, "If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"

But the study's results have been embraced by Puerto Rico officials as likely accurate after months of standing by early reports of just 64 deaths. George Washington University said in a statement Thursday that it stood by the report.

The updated tally would make Maria one of the deadliest single disaster events in recent U.S. history. An estimated 1,833 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while 2,996 people died immediately or from injuries sustained in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers.

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