Column: Trump’s denial that 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico is an outrageous lie by a U.S. president

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (En español)

After spending a few days in Puerto Rico and interviewing several people — including the governor and the mayor of San Juan — I can only say this: President Donald Trump’s claim without citing any evidence that nearly 3,000 people who died after Hurricane Maria struck this island nearly a year ago was a made-up figure concocted by “the Democrats” is the most outrageous lie I’ve ever heard from a U.S. president.

Trump tweeted last week that “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” and the figure had not gone up “by much” after the initial count of six to 18 deaths. Referring to the death toll, he added that “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible.”

Just as despicably, Trump earlier in the week also claimed — amid an avalanche of criticism over his negligence of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria — that his performance following the storm had been an “unsung success.” Shortly after the hurricane, he had given himself a score of “10” out of 10 for his handling of Hurricane Maria’s relief efforts.

But in a recent visit here, I couldn’t find anyone who would give such a high rating to Trump’s response to the storm. The one who came closest to excusing the president was Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who may have feared that antagonizing Trump could jeopardize federal aid to the island.

The vast majority of Puerto Ricans I talked to said that the Trump administration’s performance after Hurricane Maria was disastrous and that it failed to prevent thousands of deaths.

“The Puerto Rico government looked the other way, applauded Trump, and helped him convey a narrative that this was a good-news story,” says San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who is labeled by critics as a radical leftist, and is one of the governor’s fiercest critics. “This was not a good-news story. People were dying. We were literally dying.”

Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, says that thousands of Puerto Ricans died after Hurricane Maria "because Donald Trump was negligent."

Most Puerto Ricans I talked to on the streets were enraged by the president’s claim during his post-hurricane visit that only 16 people had died as a result of the Sept. 20 storm.

In fact, a recent study by George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health that was commissioned by Rosselló put the figure at almost 3,000. In May, a Harvard University study published by the New England Journal of Medicine estimated the death toll to be 4,600.

There were many symptoms of the Trump administration’s racism, negligence or ineptness in its response to Hurricane Maria.

While Trump visited Texas only four days after Hurricane Harvey and rushed to Florida four days after Hurricane Irma, it took him 13 days to visit Puerto Rico after the storm struck. Never mind that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory whose more than 3 million residents are Americans.

And Trump only flew here after widespread criticism in the media that he was discriminating against Puerto Ricans. Almost the entire island was in the dark, without drinking water or other basic public services. Yet the president had spent the days after Hurricane Maria talking and tweeting about the Texas and Florida storms, and about some NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

Then, when Trump finally arrived, there was the famous Marie Antoinette moment when he playfully tossed paper towels at hurricane victims. Most Puerto Ricans took that not only as an act of arrogance but as an offensive dismissal of people who were dying for lack of electricity in hospitals.

IMG_toss_3_1_99DTQHQE_L397053714.JPG
President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd as he hands out supplies at Calvary Chapel on Oct. 3, 2017, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria.
Evan Vucci AP File

Things didn’t get much better after the president’s visit. The Trump administration’s aid to Puerto Rico was smaller, and arrived much later, than federal assistance to Texas and Florida after their storms.

Nine days after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had delivered only 1.6 million meals to this island. Comparatively, nine days after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in late August, FEMA had delivered 5.1 million meals to Texans, according to official data reported by Politico.com.

Nine days after their respective hurricanes, Puerto Rico, an island of 3.3 million people, got only 5,000 tarps from the federal government, while Texas, where Harvey hit most severely Houston and its coastal area — had received 20,000, according to FEMA figures.

Likewise, nine days after Hurricane Maria had hit Puerto Rico, the federal government had sent 10,000 personnel to this island, compared to the 30,000 it had sent to Texas at the same point after Hurricane Harvey.

You may argue that Texas has a larger population than Puerto Rico, and that it’s unfair to compare the Trump administration’s response to both storms. But two weeks before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico had been struck by Hurricane Irma, which had already left many on the island in the dark. Puerto Rico was hit much harder than Texas, many on the island say.

A year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico the island remains in a state of recovery. The official death toll now stands at 2,975, making Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Narration by Rita Moreno.

Now, a year later, Puerto Rico is still not back on its feet. When I arrived here late at night recently, much of Baldorioty de Castro Avenue, connecting the international airport to San Juan, was in the dark. The street lamps were either damaged or without access to electricity.

While power has been restored to most of the island’s homes, there still are frequent blackouts. Many traffic lights have yet to be fixed, and several hospitals in the countryside still lack generators, which may leave them in the dark again if a new storm hits the island.

Puerto Ricans’ mass exodus to the mainland has intensified. Puerto Rico’s government says that as many as 250,000 people have moved to the mainland since Hurricane Maria, but other estimates put the figure at 300,000, or higher. Most are heading for Florida.

Rosselló says that the federal government’s disaster relief efforts to Puerto Rico were “inexplicably slow,” but he goes out of his way not to lay the blame on Trump. Instead, he points to “the bureaucracy” and to Puerto Rico’s lack of voting rights in the U.S. Congress.

“The root cause of all of this is that Puerto Ricans, long before this administration, have been second-class citizens in the United States. We are a colonial territory,” Rosselló told me. “And as long as we are inhibited or disenfranchised, we will not have the political power to ask for the appropriate resources, as Florida or Texas would in a similar situation.”

But there may be powerful reasons why Rosselló, a Democrat, is careful not to attack the president. Rosselló is a champion of Puerto Rico’s push for statehood, which seeks to turn the island into a full-fledged U.S. state.

Critics say that the governor’s pro-statehood stand has led him to soften his criticism of Trump’s dismal response to the hurricane because he needs the president’s support — and that of Republicans in Congress — to advance the cause of Puerto Rico’s statehood in Congress.

In addition, Rosselló’s critics say the governor avoided criticizing Trump because he feared that could trigger the president’s ire and slow down federal aid to the island. Asked about that, Rosselló told me, “My job as governor was to ensure that the resources arrived in Puerto Rico.”

Many wish the governor had denounced loudly and clearly the Trump administration’s poor response to Puerto Rico’s disaster. That would have caused a bigger uproar on the U.S. mainland early on and could have placed greater pressure on the administration to speed up relief efforts.

History will tell whether Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria was a result of racism, negligence or ineptitude. But there is little question that his slow reaction contributed to the death toll, now in the thousands. Trump should be held accountable for every one of those deaths.