The day after Puerto Rico revised the death toll from last year’s Hurricane Maria upward — by a staggering factor of more than 4,600 percent, according to ABC News — Donald Trump insisted that his administration did a “fantastic job” responding to the disaster.
After Tuesday’s revision, based on a comprehensive study commissioned by the Puerto Rico government from George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, according to USA Today, the death toll from Hurricane Maria stands at 2,975. That’s just two deaths short of the total number of people killed (2,977, per CNN) in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Until the GWU study was released and adopted by the government of the United States territory — which was annexed by the U.S. in 1898 at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war, as Vox recounts — the official Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico stood at 64.
“I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. We’re still helping Puerto Rico. The governor is an excellent guy and he’s very happy with the job we’ve done,” Trump said at a White House photo opportunity, according to NBC News. “I think most of the people in Puerto Rico really appreciate what we’ve done.”
Trump also said that the U.S. had put “billions and billions of dollars” into Puerto Rico, and added, “it was a very tough one,” Mediaite reported.
Earlier, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the drastically increased death toll, saying in a statement that Trump was “proud of all of the work the Federal family undertook to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.”
When Trump visited Puerto Rico last year in the aftermath of the hurricane, the initial death toll had been given at 16, prompting Trump to boast about what he saw as the relatively small number of deaths, according to an ABC News report, contrasting Maria with the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which Trump called “a real catastrophe.”
“If you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering — nobody has ever seen anything like this,” Trump said at the time. “Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”
Trump was also criticized for throwing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of hurricane survivors, a gesture widely perceived as insensitive and strange. Trump later defended the stunt, calling the paper towels, “beautiful, soft towels. Very good towels,” according to NBC News.