President Donald Trump visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday, just over a week after a new Harvard study estimated more than 4,600 people in Puerto Rico died in Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
But even as he was briefed on the upcoming hurricane season, the President remained mum on the new estimate, which dwarfs the government’s official 64-person death toll. Instead, the President praised FEMA and other US officials, telling them they should be “very proud” of their work to beat back last year’s devastating hurricane season.
“We really appreciate the job you’ve done,” Trump told FEMA officials and members of his Cabinet. “I want to thank you very much.”
“Our entire government leapt into action to coordinate the response along with state and local leaders,” he added.
The President did mention Puerto Rico and several US states that were hard hit by hurricanes last year, but offered no indication the US was reviewing its response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico.
He also offered up praise for all his Cabinet members in attendance, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he has resumed personally criticizing on Twitter of late.
But Trump offered notably less kind words for Sessions than others, noting merely: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Thank you, Jeff. Thank you very much.”
Vice President Mike Pence commended US agencies for their response to the hurricanes last year and said the US is just as prepared for the coming hurricane season as it was last year.
“We are prepared, just as we were last year, with those historic and unprecedented hurricanes,” Pence said. “I also want to commend all of the agencies represented here for the job that was done last year.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has deflected questions about the new death toll estimate when pressed over the last week.
“The federal response, once again, was at a historic proportion,” Sanders said this week when asked if Trump still rated his response to the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico a 10 out of 10. “
Last week, Sanders said Trump “takes the situation in Puerto Rico extremely seriously” and noted that the “two Category 4 hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico were historic.”
“We’ve responded with the largest FEMA operation in history, and we’re going to continue to work with the people of Puerto Rico and do everything we can to be helpful,” Sanders said.
The study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and other institutions arrived at a 4,645-person death toll estimate by surveying 3,299 randomly chosen households across the island earlier this year. Authors compared results of that survey – which asked island residents about deaths in their homes, among other things – with official mortality statistics from 2016. That allowed researchers to estimate the number of deaths that likely occurred as a result of Hurricane Maria between the date of the storm and December 31, 2017.
The Puerto Rican government has said they have no reason to question the estimate.
The new death toll estimate would overshadow the death toll during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for which the federal response was heavily criticized. Trump in October favorably compared the death toll in Puerto Rico to that of Katrina, which he called “a real catastrophe.”