An estimated 2,975 people lost their lives in the storm and in its aftermath, according to a recently released study commissioned by Puerto Rico’s government and conducted by researchers at George Washington University. Puerto Rico officials adopted the figure as the official number of deaths linked to the storm.
But FEMA administrator Brock Long, when asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether his agency accepts that death count, said that “the numbers are all over the place.”
“FEMA doesn’t count deaths,” Long told host Chuck Todd.
Referring to the storm now battering North and South Carolina, he added that “if you take what’s going on with [Hurricane] Florence, the deaths that are verified by the local county coroners are the ones that we take.”
Trump sparked an intense backlash on Thursday when he accused Democrats of making up “really large numbers” of deaths in Puerto Rico to make him “look as bad as possible.”
No evidence has emerged to support his claim that Democrats had anything to do with the GWU report.
Long, a Trump appointee who assumed office in June 2017, did not condemn the president’s outlandish accusation when asked by Todd if he believes the numerous studies estimating several thousand people died because of Hurricane Maria’s devastation were an effort to hurt Trump’s reputation.
“I don’t know why the studies were done,” Long said. “I think what we’re trying to do ― 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, buildings collapsing.”
The Puerto Rican government revised Hurricane Maria’s official death toll from 64 to 2,975 last month following the GWU study’s release. Independent investigations conducted separately by The New York Times, Penn State University and Harvard University also estimated Maria’s death toll to be in the thousands.
Experts say counting the number of fatalities in the aftermath of a disaster is critical to understanding which populations are most vulnerable and how to better prepare for future disasters. It’s not uncommon for a death toll to rise in the days, weeks and months after a natural disaster.
Still, Long claimed the studies’ findings on Hurricane Maria were “all over the place” and “frustrating.” He praised Trump’s support for FEMA, adding that the president was being “defensive” about the death toll reports because “he knows how hard these guys behind me work.”
“There’s just too much blame going around,” he added. “And we need to be focused … on what is Puerto Rico going to look like tomorrow.”
Long is the subject of a Department of Homeland Security inspector general investigation into whether he misused government vehicles and personnel during his frequent drives between his home in North Carolina and FEMA headquarters in Washington. He has denied any wrongdoing.
“Bottom line is if we made … mistakes on how a program is run, we’ll work with OIG to get those corrected,” he said at a press conference Thursday. “Doing something unethical is not part of my DNA, and not part of my track record and my whole entire career.”
“Secretary Nielsen has never asked me to resign,” Long told Todd. “We have a very functional and professional relationship.”
This story has been updated with details on the inspector general’s probe focusing on Long.