The official death count has remained at 64, though Puerto Rican officials quietly conceded this week in a report to Congress that over 1,427 deaths may be directly or indirectly linked to the historic storm.
In the months since Maria, President Donald Trump has been remarkably silent about Puerto Rico’s struggle to recover. Trump, a notoriously prolific tweeter, hasn’t mentioned the hurricane on social media since November, and he hasn’t visited Puerto Rico since October.
The only time Trump publicly addressed the death toll was during his only post-Maria visit to the island, in which he suggested Puerto Ricans were lucky Maria wasn’t a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which left over 1,800 dead.
At the time, the official death toll was 16, though Puerto Rican leaders, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz repeatedly and publicly warned that the number of fatalities was exponentially higher.
In mid-October, Trump conceded that he believed Maria was actually “worse than Katrina,” but still gave his administration “a 10” out of 10 in its response to the storm.
So why hasn’t Trump publicly acknowledged the likely staggering number of deaths? Or personally provided updates on Puerto Rico’s monthslong struggle to restore power to its residents? Or met with any of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Puerto Ricans?
HuffPost asked the White House on Thursday if Trump would care to comment on Puerto Rico’s death toll, given the growing indication that hundreds or thousands had died. In response, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley provided a statement:
There’s only one official count and the actual counting of disaster related fatalities is the local responsibility of Puerto Rico. We have been supportive of Governor Rossello’s efforts to ensure a full accounting and transparency. Those grieving deserve no less. The whole of government remains focused on ongoing recovery and preparedness for the current Hurricane season.
When asked in a subsequent email whether Trump still believes the federal response was adequate, Jessica Ditto, deputy communications director for the White House, responded that “the entire federal response was massive, historic and unprecedented.”
But many activists and lawmakers disagree with the White House’s assessment. Some expressed sorrow on Thursday over the Puerto Rican government’s discreet death toll concession, and others tore into Trump for spending millions of dollars on the creation of a new armed service known as the Space Force instead of sending more aid to Puerto Rico.
Trump’s public concern over Puerto Rico’s recovery appeared to subside following a wave of self-congratulatory statements from his administration on what it deemed a successful hurricane response.
Just nine days after Maria made landfall, then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke called the government’s relief efforts “a good news story,” sparking outrage among lawmakers such as Cruz.
“This is a people-are-dying story,” Cruz told CNN in response to Duke’s comments. “This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.”
For months, Cruz pleaded with the Trump administration to send additional aid to help the millions of lives uprooted by Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the the U.S. territory in at least 80 years.
“I am begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying,” Cruz said in televised remarks days before Trump’s October visit to the island. “If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying. And you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy.”
Trump responded to Cruz by claiming she was simply playing politics and accused Puerto Rican workers of not doing their part to help in relief efforts.
“Results of recovery efforts will speak much louder than complaints by San Juan Mayor,” he tweeted on Sept. 30, adding later that she exhibited “poor leadership.”
Days later, Trump and first lady Melania Trump would arrive for their first and only post-Maria visit to Puerto Rico, where the president would downplay the devastation.
“Sixteen people versus in the thousands,” Trump had said, comparing Maria’s death toll to Katrina’s. “You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everyone around this table, and everyone watching, can be very proud of what’s taking place in Puerto Rico.”
Following his remarks at the briefing, Trump made a few other stops in San Juan, including at a church where he made headlines by throwing paper towels to Puerto Ricans displaced by Maria.
Trump also took several opportunities during and after Maria to remind Puerto Ricans that their government was $74 billion in debt, and that despite the historic storm, they would still have to deal with their financial woes on the other side.
“When Mr. Trump suggested that Puerto Rico’s plight had thrown the federal government’s budget out of wack, and that Katrina was a worse disaster, well… that hit hard,” Wanda Acosta, the 56-year-old owner of a boutique hotel in Rincon, Puerto Rico, told HuffPost in an email Friday.
“Saying that Puerto Ricans want everything done for them was outrageous!” she added. “Everyone was out in the streets, on their farms, in their yards, repairing their businesses, cleaning and clearing, helping and cooking and just surviving without power and water.”
By the end of October, Trump’s tweets about Puerto Rico had ceased. He had tweeted about Maria roughly two-dozen times ― about the same number of times he’s tweeted attacks (one as recently as Friday) against NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
By comparison, he’s tweeted about special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation over 85 times since Maria.
There have been significant developments related to Puerto Rico’s recovery ― studies on the number of fatalities, government corruption charges, the extraordinarily prolonged restoration of the island’s power. Trump hasn’t publicly addressed any of them.
A Politico investigation published in March found Trump had reacted far more aggressively to Hurricane Harvey than to Maria. He visited Houston twice within the first eight days after Harvey struck the Gulf Coast, killing over 100 people. He waited 13 days to visit Puerto Rico. It took 10 days for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to grant permanent disaster aid in Texas, compared to 43 days for Puerto Rico, Politico reported.
I am begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying. And you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy.
Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan
“After witnessing first hand the horror & devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, my heart goes out even more so to the great people of Texas!” Trump tweeted at the time. Two days later, he declared Sept. 3, 2017, a national day of prayer for the victims of Harvey.
Nearly every indication suggests Hurricane Maria was responsible for close to ― if not more than ― the number of deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. President George W. Bush’s legacy was, in part, defined by his administration’s widely panned response to the natural disaster, which left over 1,500 people dead in Louisiana alone.
Bush’s approval rating dramatically dropped in the wake of Katrina. Bush eventually took “full responsibility” for the federal failures, though not before the then-head of New Orleans’ emergency operations called the federal government’s slow response a “national disgrace.”
Despite significant backlash, Trump emerged relatively unscathed from Maria’s destruction. His response to it didn’t appear to have much of an impact on his approval rating, as it continued to hover around 36 percent in the months after. It has since climbed to 41 percent in recent weeks, according to the Pew Research Center. Despite public pressure, Trump did not further inject himself into the national conversation about Puerto Rico’s fight to recover.
A George Washington University study commissioned by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in December to scientifically determine the excess deaths related to Hurricane Maria is expected to be completed in the coming weeks and could finally provoke a statement from Trump.
A spokeswoman for the university told HuffPost that the study was expected to be released “this summer.” It was initially slated for completion by late May, though the school said in a statement that data collection had taken longer than expected.
“We owe it to the people of Puerto Rico to have a precise number, along with the data we need to make better preparations for future disaster situations,” Héctor Pesquera, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety, said in a statement Thursday. “With this information, we can understand what procedures need to be in place in Puerto Rico to prevent such a high loss of life from ever happening again.”