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Trump falsely claims Hurricane Maria death toll was made up by Democrats

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President Donald Trump has falsely claimed that 3,000 people did not die in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, and said the number was made up by the Democratic party “to make me look as bad as possible”.

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Despite significant evidence showing nearly 3,000 people were killed in the devastating storm last year, Trump tweeted an extraordinary claim that the official death toll was a political scheme, two days after he was sharply criticised for saying the government had an “unsung success” in its response to Maria.

Puerto Rico’s government raised the official death toll from 64 people to 2,975 late last month following the publication of new research by George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Though the official death toll was changed, reports by other academic institutions and newspapers estimated the death toll was in the thousands as early as December 2017. But Trump contested these findings on Thursday.

A report published in May by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health said up to 4,600 people were killed and an investigation published in December by the Center for Investigative Journalism found the actual death toll exceeded 1,000 people.

The adjustment of the official death toll followed nearly a year of campaigning by journalists, activists and academics to get the government to officially acknowledge the scale of devastation because 64 people was always considered an underestimate. The George Washington University report said the actual number of excess deaths was estimated to be in the range of 2,658 to 3,290.

Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico in October 2017 was defined by the moment he threw paper towels into a crowd of people as aid agencies and journalists warned of a major humanitarian crisis spanning the island of 3.3 million people.

On his visit, he appeared to complain about the cost of the recovery effort. “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack,” he said at a briefing shortly after arriving on the island.

Maria, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm, caused an island-wide power outage, almost completely knocked out communications including satellite phones and left 80% of the island without access to water in the days following the storm.

The majority of the island’s 69 hospitals were without electricity or fuel for generators a week after Maria made landfall. The supply chain crumbled,preventing people across the island from getting food, water and fuel.

Trump’s claim that when he left the island there had been “anywhere from six to 18 deaths” does not acknowledge that before he arrived, Puerto Rico’s health secretary said it was fair to assume the number would rise. Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI), a local investigative journalism project, also reported before Trump’s visit that hospital mortuaries were at capacity and people were not able to bury dead relatives because funeral homes were unable to operate.

There is no indication Trump raised “billions” to help rebuild the island and the government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) has said its recovery efforts were strained after responding to two other major hurricanes weeks before Maria.

The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, responded to Trump on Twitter: “This is what denial following neglect looks like: Mr Pres in the real world people died on your watch. YOUR LACK OF RESPECT IS APPALLING!

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