By Hope Yen and
Wire Service Correspondents
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a stormy week, President Donald Trump blustered and distorted reality, denying massive deaths from a hurricane that scientists believe to be one of the nation’s deadliest and blowing out of proportion U.S. economic growth and his role in spurring it.
He’s insisting the federal response to Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico last September, was “incredibly successful,” even though blackouts there remain common and several forms of federal aid have been slow to arrive compared with past disasters. Independent researchers have estimated the death toll was nearly 3,000 people. Trump is rejecting that work, claiming it’s a conspiracy by Democrats and isn’t true.
And as the November elections near, Trump is citing record-breaking middle-class income that isn’t so and exaggerating progress on his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
At the same time, some of Trump’s critics were not entirely immune from hyperbole.
Former President Barack Obama asserted “healthy” economic growth during his administration that is in dispute and a Democratic lawmaker blamed all the estimated deaths from Puerto Rico’s hurricane on the Trump administration, as if the storm itself took no one.
A look at some of the recent claims:
TRUMP: “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. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!” —tweets Thursday.
THE FACTS: He is making a baseless assertion that massive deaths did not happen, even if the exact toll from the hurricane remains imprecise.
Independent researchers at George Washington University estimated 2,975 excess deaths related to Hurricane Maria in the six months following the hurricane, which hit last September. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello commissioned the study and accepted the death toll as the best available. Rossello rejected the findings of a different study that estimated more than 4,000 died, saying he found the GWU research with its lower number to be scientifically sound.
The study found that 22 percent more people died than would have been expected during that period in a year without the storm. Its central finding has been roughly corroborated by other, similar studies. A second phase will examine the circumstances of specific deaths to arrive at a more precise number.
The lead researcher on the study was Dr. Carlos Santos-Burgoa, a well-known expert in global health, particularly Latin America.
Trump’s claim that the death toll was no more than 18 when he visited Puerto Rico, nearly two weeks after the storm, ignores the fact that the U.S. territory’s official death toll was raised to 34 later that day, Oct. 3. After that, it climbed to 64. With services devastated, most power out, many people desperate for food and water and roads impassable, it was impossible to know how many died directly from Maria or from floodwaters or deprivation in its immediate aftermath.
That’s why the official death toll remained relatively low until researchers could examine death records and gain a broader understanding of people’s circumstances.
It took years to assess the death toll from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 despite the relative accessibility of the Gulf Coast, for example. About 1,800 died from Katrina.
Trump was a one-man island in attributing the Puerto Rican death estimate to Democrats. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., saw “no reason to dispute” the estimate. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted his support of the 3,000 finding and lamented that “These days even tragedy becomes political.” Several other Republican lawmakers from Florida similarly rejected Trump’s words. Democrats were outraged.
TRUMP: “We got A Pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida (and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan).” — tweet Wednesday.
TRUMP: “I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful. Puerto Rico was, actually, our toughest one of all because it’s an island … Everything is by boat …The job that FEMA and law enforcement and everybody did, working along with the Governor in Puerto Rico, I think was tremendous. I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success.” — remarks Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Trump’s claim that the federal government had an “incredibly successful” response to Maria is questionable.
The storm is estimated to be one of the nation’s worst disasters, after the U.S. territory raised its official death toll from 64 to 2,975 based on the GWU study. That surpasses the 1,800 people who died from Hurricane Katrina. Maria is also estimated to have caused $100 billion in damage.
A July report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency noted several shortcomings in its response, including that it underestimated how much food and water would be needed after the storm and that not enough Spanish-speaking aid workers were deployed to the island.
Responding to Trump’s comments, Rossello disputed the notion that the response was “successful.”
Blackouts still remain common; nearly 60,000 homes are covered by only a makeshift roof not capable of withstanding a Category 1 hurricane; and 13 percent of municipalities lack stable phone or internet service.
In Maria’s aftermath, according to FEMA data analyzed by the AP, approvals for individual assistance checks in Puerto Rico were slower compared with what happened with large storms last year. From Sept. 30 to Oct. 7, not one of those checks was approved. On Oct. 8 the approvals began rolling again, but with a large spike suggesting a backlog.
In addition, data from the U.S. Small Business Administration indicate that approvals for disaster loans in Puerto Rico were slow — the first one was not approved until 15 days after the storm was declared, four times as long as with Hurricane Harvey.
DEMOCRATIC SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ of New Jersey: “You’re right, Mr. President. The Hurricane didn’t kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did.” — tweet Thursday.
THE FACTS: He’s taking it too far. Whatever the shortcomings of the federal response, attributing a specific death toll to that alone is unsupported. FEMA faced some problems that were beyond its control, principally the sheer force of the Category 4 monster storm as well as the logistical difficulties of reaching the Caribbean island, more than 1,000 miles from the U.S. mainland.
Residents have been critical of the hurricane response by local officials, not just by Washington. Puerto Rico’s government has acknowledged that its emergency plans were designed only for a Category 1 hurricane, and admitted failures to follow those plans and communications breakdowns.