Trump quiet on Puerto Rico death toll at hurricane-preparedness briefing

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President Trump with VP Mike Pence and first lady Melania Trump at FEMA headquarters. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP)
President Trump with VP Mike Pence and first lady Melania Trump at FEMA headquarters. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP)

President Trump did not address the much-discussed death toll in Puerto Rico during his public remarks at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Wednesday afternoon.

Before being briefed by FEMA officials on preparedness for the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, Trump delivered some opening remarks that focused on praising his Cabinet and others involved in the emergency response to the string of natural disasters that struck the U.S. last year.

“We’ve had three devastating major hurricanes that hit our country within a month’s time. There’s never been really anything like it,” Trump said, referring to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. He also addressed the devastating wildfires along the West Coast: “America has never experienced so many large-scale disasters in so short a period of time.”

But Trump did not address the recent controversy over the official death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20, when the U.S. territory was still dealing with the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma.

The U.S. government’s official death toll from Maria stands at 64. Just last week, however, a Harvard study estimated that 4,645 people died from the conditions following the storms. The Puerto Rican government and the New York Times placed that figure at around 1,000. In short, researchers say there’s a growing scientific consensus that the U.S. government’s tally is far below the actual death toll and that further study is required to establish the definitive figure.

Slideshow: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria >>>

Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters
Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has largely deflected questions about the death toll in Puerto Rico and Trump has not addressed the recent estimate publicly, but the discrepancy has reignited a debate over the federal government’s relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

“The mobilization was clearly slower than what happened in Texas and Florida, and it’s more than just ‘it was an island,’ which was the lame excuse given by President Trump,” Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., told Yahoo News. “Ships were not ready to depart to go down right afterwards. We’ve deployed resources, whether it’s food, water, utilities, personnel, other assets to war zones halfway around the globe quicker than the federal government brought the resources to bear on Puerto Rico. It took weeks for us to really ramp up, and I believe we must be better prepared for the next storm.”

Asked about the White House’s defense of its response to the tragedy, Soto said, “The 64-death-number is wholly inaccurate. It is missing thousands of Puerto Ricans who died as a result of inaction. As importantly, just look at the numbers, 90 billion dollars in damage and only 18.9 billion was allocated. That is, per se, inadequate.”

During his public comments at FEMA headquarters, Trump did, however, mention Puerto Rico when listing the places struck by colossal storms last year.

“Families in Texas and Louisiana, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi — they were all affected, hard to believe — and on tribal lands, where the hit was catastrophic and the storms were really historic in their severity. But in the wake of such tragedy, we also witnessed the resilience of the American people.”

It is not yet known whether the Puerto Rican death toll was brought up during the closed-press portion of Trump’s meeting at FEMA.

In his public comments, Trump said that U.S. disaster response infrastructure is the best model in the world and that the U.S. helps “other countries also when there’s catastrophic events, like in Mexico and other places, we’re always there for them.” He said these systems work best when they are “federally supported, state-managed and locally executed.”

“As we enter the hurricane season again — here we go, are you ready?” Trump said. “But we’re entering it. This is it. We are marshaling every available resource to ensure maximum preparation for rapid response. That’s what we had last year.”

After the briefing ended, Trump again thanked Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FEMA administrator Brock Long and expressed much respect for FEMA’s work. And again, he did not mention the death toll in Puerto Rico.

With additional reporting by Chris Wilson

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