- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2018

FEMA chief Brock Long on Sunday declined to criticize President Trump for claiming Puerto Rico’s death toll from Hurricane Maria had been inflated to help Democrats in a midterm year.

Mr. Long, who is steeped in the response to Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, said it’s hard to referee the dispute over whether 3,000 people died because of last year’s storm, because studies on the death toll vary.

“There’s a lot of issues with numbers being all over the place,” he told Fox News on Sunday. “It’s hard to tell what’s accurate and what’s not.”

He also said Mr. Trump shouldn’t be blamed for things as attenuated as car crashes or spousal abuse.

“You might see more deaths indirectly occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress. They fall off their house trying to fix their roof. They die in car crashes because they went through an intersection where the stoplights weren’t working,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “You know the other thing that goes on, there’s all kinds of studies on this that we take a look at. Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse, you know, after a disaster on anybody.”

Mr. Trump enraged Democrats by claiming their party helped researchers inflate the Maria toll from the mid-teens, when he visited in the wake of the storm, to the thousands a year later.

He said unrelated deaths were added to the list to boost his rivals in a midterm election year.

“This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics.”

Florida Republicans running for office distanced themselves from the comments, while Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello asked Mr. Trump to show more empathy for the island’s citizens.

Mr. Long didn’t explicitly defend the president’s comments but didn’t push back, either.

“There’s several different studies out there that are all over the place,” Mr. Long told Fox.

He said Puerto Rico’s problems were due in part to an old electrical grid and the lack of usual safeguards that allow places to respond to storms.

Typically, the response relies on what he referred to as a four-legged chair — the federal government, state/local governments, the private sector and neighbors helping neighbors.

In Puerto Rico, he said, “there were several parts of that chair missing.”

Mr. Long said his agency is working hard to correct those issues on the island.

But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic candidate for Congress, said there is a systemic problem at play, arguing Washington has a “modern-day colonial relationship” with Puerto Rico.

“It is acute situations like this in which Puerto Ricans continue to be treated like second-class citizens,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said on CNN.

For now, federal responders are focused on Hurricane Florence, which slammed into the Carolina coast in recent days. So far, 17 deaths have been connected to the storm.

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