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‘We did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico’: Trump defends response despite spike in deaths after Hurricane Maria

One day after Puerto Rico revised the death toll from Hurricane Maria to nearly 3,000, President Trump on Aug. 29 praised the federal government’s response. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump on Wednesday defended his administration's response to a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico last year, despite a study released this week that said there was a spike in deaths on the island in the six months that followed.

“I think we did a fantastic job,” Trump said, responding to a question from a reporter at the White House. He called the emergency on the island “by far the most difficult” of the areas of the United States and its territories ravaged by hurricanes.

“It's hard to get things on the island,” Trump said, comparing the situation to response efforts in Texas and Florida, which also suffered significant damage.

The president's remarks came a day after a sweeping new report from George Washington University found that there were an estimated 2,975 excess deaths on the island after Maria made landfall in September 2017. The Puerto Rican government embraced the findings as the official death toll, ranking Maria among the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. For much of the past year, the government had formally acknowledged just 64 deaths from the hurricane, which ravaged much of the territory and destroyed critical infrastructure. The spike in mortality came as the territory dealt with widespread and lengthy power outages, a lack of access to adequate health care, water insecurity and diseases related to the crisis.

Following the release of a report, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló raised the island's official toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975 on Aug. 28. (Video: Ricardo Rossello)

Trump and his administration had been heavily criticized for not responding to the crisis in Puerto Rico as thoroughly as they did to the disasters caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the continental United States. As he had in the aftermath of the storms last year, Trump emphasized the magnitude of the challenge Wednesday, calling the back-to-back hurricanes “the likes of which we have never seen before,” and sought to shift blame onto Puerto Rico, citing the U.S. territory's debt and infrastructure problems as contributing to the crisis.

Study: Hurricane Maria and its aftermath caused a spike in Puerto Rico deaths, with nearly 3,000 more than normal

“When the hurricane came, people said, 'What are we going to do about electricity?' That wasn't really the hurricane. It was done before the hurricane,” Trump said. “We've put a lot of money and a lot of effort into Puerto Rico.” He said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who unlike other politicians in the territory has been supportive of Trump, was “happy with the job we've done.”

At a news conference Tuesday, Rosselló accepted the GWU report, which found that his administration was largely unprepared for the magnitude of the storm, and acknowledged he had “made mistakes.”

It is “time to correct what we didn’t do well,” he said.

Trump praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency as “very brave” in its response to the storms last year. Of Puerto Rico, he said: “I only hope they don't get hit again. … Puerto Rico had a lot of difficulties before they got hit. We're straightening out those difficulties even now.”