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As Florence looms, Trump says response was ‘incredibly successful’ last year in Puerto Rico

September 11, 2018 at 5:52 PM

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President Trump on Sept. 11 praised his administration's response to the damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria last year, where the death toll was nearly 3,000. (The Washington Post)

With Hurricane Florence churning toward the Carolinas, President Trump on Tuesday hailed his administration’s response to last year’s storm in Puerto Rico, where researchers have estimated there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths.

In remarks in the Oval Office, Trump said his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria was “an incredible, unsung success” and incorrectly suggested that Puerto Rico had virtually no electricity before the storm.

It was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Trump said. He was speaking in response to questions from reporters after receiving a briefing on Florence.

Trump has repeatedly asserted that his administration did a “fantastic job” in response to the disaster. Yet he has come under criticism that the response was ineffective and that the death toll would have been far lower had his administration reacted more quickly.

In a report published last month, George Washington University researchers estimated that the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria had led to 2,975 excess deaths in the six months after the storm. The government of Puerto Rico has embraced the estimate, which the researchers arrived at by comparing the number of deaths after the hurricane to typical death rates and adjusting for a range of variables.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk from the Marine One helicopter to Air Force One at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport before departing Johnstown, Pa., on Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency itself has acknowledged that it was ill-prepared for the storm.

Trump also said that Puerto Rico “had no electricity, essentially, before the storm. And when the storm hit, that took it out entirely.”

After Hurricane Maria pummeled the island, Puerto Rico was hit by a widespread power outage without recent precedent in U.S. history. While the territory’s power utility was bankrupt before the storm — a point Trump noted on Tuesday — it is unclear on what basis the president was making his claim that the island had virtually no power.

Trump’s remarks prompted sharp retorts from congressional Democrats as well as Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, who said the president’s statement “adds insult to injury.”

“Success? Federal response according to Trump in Puerto Rico a success? If he thinks the death of 3,000 people [is] a success God help us all,” Cruz tweeted.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Trump’s remarks “offensive, hurtful and blatantly false” and said the deaths of nearly 3,000 people represented the “complete opposite” of success.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump declared that the government is “absolutely, totally prepared” for Hurricane Florence, which is expected to bring destructive winds and catastrophic flooding.

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President Trump said Sept. 11 that the government is "absolutely, totally prepared" for Hurricane Florence, a Category 4 storm headed toward the Carolinas. (The Washington Post)

“We’re ready. FEMA is ready. Everybody is ready,” Trump said.

“We have everybody standing by. We hope for the best,” he said. “There’s a chance it could be a very bad one, as you’ve probably heard . . . But we are absolutely, totally prepared.”

Trump made his brief comments at Joint Base Andrews as he returned to the Washington area after a trip to Pennsylvania, where he participated in a memorial service for those who perished on Flight 93 amid the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Trump was responding to a reporter’s question.

Related: [Category 4 Hurricane Florence drawing closer to Carolinas and threatens ‘catastrophic’ flooding]

Up until that point, the president had said relatively little about the hurricane, even as it started to dominate news coverage.

Later Tuesday, in the Oval Office, Trump said his administration was “as ready as anybody has ever been” and warned that the storm would be “tremendously big and tremendously wet — tremendous amount of water.”

“The safety of the American people is my absolute highest priority. We are sparing no expense,” Trump said.

He was speaking with reporters after a briefing on the hurricane by FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Trump added that he had spoken with the governors of Virginia and the Carolinas.

On Monday afternoon, he sent a tweet cautioning residents of the two states believed to be most at risk.

“To the incredible citizens of North Carolina, South Carolina and the entire East Coast — the storm looks very bad!” Trump said. “Please take all necessary precautions. We have already began mobilizing our assets to respond accordingly, and we are here for you!”

Trump’s remarks came on the same day that a group of nearly two dozen House and Senate Democrats as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) penned a letter asking administration officials how they plan to respond in light of the updated fatality count in Puerto Rico.

The letter to Long and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was signed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) and other lawmakers.

David Nakamura contributed to this report.


Felicia Sonmez is a national political reporter covering breaking news from the White House, Congress and the campaign trail. She was previously based in Beijing, where she worked for Agence France-Presse and The Wall Street Journal.

John Wagner is a national reporter who leads The Post's new breaking political news team. He previously covered the Trump White House. During the 2016 presidential election, he focused on the Democratic campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. He also chronicled Maryland government for more than a decade.

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