Embattled FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long said Sunday that the figures for how many people died as a result of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year are “all over the place,” in remarks that echoed President Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on a George Washington University study finding there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths on the island in the months after the storm.
“It’s hard to tell what’s accurate and what’s not,” Long said in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” He made similar remarks in appearances on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” and CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”
Puerto Rican authorities have accepted the results of the university’s study.
Long’s television appearances were supposed to focus on the administration’s response efforts as Hurricane Florence tore through the Carolinas. Yet that message was overshadowed by questions surrounding Long’s future at FEMA, now in jeopardy due to an internal investigation of his alleged misuse of government resources, and the uproar caused by Trump’s response to the death toll in Puerto Rico.
Trump prompted widespread anger last week by dismissing the study’s results, which estimated there were 2,975 more deaths than normal during the six months after Maria, and suggesting the research was manipulated by Democrats to “make me look as bad as possible.”
The White House, meanwhile, has discussed replacing Long, whose use of government vehicles for personal travel between Washington and his home in North Carolina prompted the investigation, but officials have elected to let the probe finish before making a decision.
Long on Sunday did not dispute Trump’s assertion, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd, “I don’t know why the studies were done.” He suggested researchers took into account deaths due to a range of causes with tenuous links to the storm, such as automobile accidents and domestic violence.
“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 went through an intersection where the stoplights weren’t working. . . . Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anybody,” Long said on “Meet the Press.”
He contended that the crucial figure is “direct deaths — which is the wind, the water and the waves, buildings collapsing.”
Trump had also claimed last week that “if a person died for any reason, like old age,” the researchers would “just add them onto the list.” In a tweet Thursday, the president said: “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.”
The George Washington researchers did not attribute any specific individual’s death to Maria. The study examined the number of deaths from September 2017 to February 2018 and compared that total with what would have been expected based on historical patterns, making adjustments for a range of variables, including the mass departure of island residents in the aftermath of the storm.
If researchers had attributed every death on the island to the storm, the six-month death toll from the hurricane would have been more than five times as high.
Democrats as well as some Republicans criticized Trump for appearing to minimize the death toll. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said last week that he has “no reason to dispute” the 2,975 figure.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive insurgent who ousted Rep. Joseph Crowley (D) in New York’s 14th District primary in June, strongly criticized the “neglect and government inaction” in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which she described as “the worst humanitarian crisis in modern American history.”
She said her grandfather had been in a medical facility in Puerto Rico and “passed away in the middle of the night” after the storm.
“Well, I think what happened in my family is what happened to thousands of Puerto Ricans,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The people who pass away in these storms are the most vulnerable. They are children with illnesses. They are our elderly. And when power is not restored, when infrastructure is not taken seriously, these are the first people who pass away in storms.”
Long acknowledged that he is being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General but denied that his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, asked for him to step down.
“I’ve never been asked to resign,” Long said, maintaining that he speaks with Nielsen “every day” and that the two have a “very professional, functional relationship.”
Long also denied any misconduct.
“I would never intentionally violate any rules that I was aware of,” he said.