FEMA chief: Too much blame around on Puerto Rico deaths

September 16, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration’s disaster relief chief said Sunday that “the numbers are all over the place” from studies on the death toll in Puerto Rico from last year’s Hurricane Maria, keeping the issue in focus after President Donald Trump questioned the widely accepted count.

“There’s just too much blame going around,” said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Brock Long, and “we need to be focused on what is Puerto Rico going to look like tomorrow.”

As his agency dealt with Florence in the Carolinas, Long found himself answering questions on the Sunday news shows about the storm that hit the U.S. territory last September.

Trump tweeted this past week that “3000 people did not die” in Maria and that death count was inflated “by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” by adding unrelated deaths to the toll from causes like old age.

Independent researchers at George Washington University estimated that 2,975 excess deaths were related to Maria in the six months following the hurricane. Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosello, commissioned the study and accepted the death toll as the best available. He rejected the findings of a Harvard study that estimated more than 4,000 died, saying he found the GWU research with its lower number to be scientifically sound.

Months ago, the Rossello administration stopped updating its official death toll at 64 and ordered the independent investigation amid suspicions the dead were substantially undercounted.

Both the local and federal governments have been heavily criticized for inadequate planning and post-storm response. The Puerto Rican electrical grid collapsed into the United States’ longest-ever blackout after Maria hit on Sept. 20, 2017. Hundreds of deaths came long after the first weeks of the storm, as medical equipment failed and sick people weakened in the suffocating heat.

“I don’t know why the studies were done,” Long said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“In my opinion, what we’ve got to do is figure out why people die, from direct deaths, which is the wind, the water and the waves” and collapsed buildings, which he probably was that initial tally.

“So the George Washington study looked at what happened six months after the fact. ... 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. They die in car crashes because they, they went through an intersection where the stoplights weren’t working,” he said.

Long also cited “all kinds of studies on this that we take a look at. Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse, you know, after a disaster on anybody.”

In the end, Long said, “these studies are all over the place,” mentioning George Washington and Harvard.

“The bottom line is, we push forward on that authority as much as we can,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“And Puerto Rico is a very vulnerable place right now. But we’re focused on putting billions of dollars of work to prevent this and build it more resilient so that it doesn’t happen again.”