This week, an independent study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government found that nearly 3,000 people died during and after Hurricane Maria, which according to CNBC makes it one of the deadliest storms to hit a U.S. state or territory. Less than a day after this report was released, Donald Trump applauded his administration's response in Puerto Rico, suggesting that the U.S. "did a fantastic job" despite the high death toll.
"We have put a lot of money and a lot of effort into Puerto Rico," Trump said on Wednesday during a White House drug abuse prevention event, "and I think most of the people in Puerto Rico really appreciate what we've done."
The independent study, which was conducted by George Washington University's Milken School of Public Health, estimated that 2,975 people had died between September 2017 and February 2018. According to the ABC News, this figure is more than 4,500 percent higher than the original death toll estimate of 64.
During the event on Wednesday, Trump also claimed that Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, "is very happy with the job we've done," and argued that the island "had a lot of difficulties before it got hit" by Hurricane Maria. However, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz — who has been an outspoken critic of the president ever since the storm hit — told MSNBC that the Trump administration's treatment of Puerto Rico was proof that Trump "is incapable of feeling solidarity and empathy."
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Cruz criticized the Trump administration's relief efforts in Puerto Rico, prompting Trump to dismiss what he called "such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan." After the report was released this week announcing the increased death toll, Cruz tweeted that these deaths were "due partly to negligence."
During the event on Wednesday, Trump also suggested that Puerto Rico's electric plant had been "dead before the hurricane," making relief efforts on the island more complicated.
“If you look back on your records, you’ll see that that plant was dead, it was shut, it was bankrupt, it was out of business," Trump said. "They owed tremendous amounts of money, they had it closed up, and then when the hurricane came people said, 'What are we doing to do about electricity?'"
It took 11 months for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to restore power to all of its 1.5 million customers, but the island's power grid remains vulnerable, especially to natural disasters.
But Trump also argued that hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico were more difficult than in Texas or Florida because Puerto Rico is an island, making its situation "a very tough one."
"You know, Texas healed quickly and the people were incredible," Trump told event attendees. "Florida healed quickly and everybody worked very hard. Puerto Rico was actually more difficult because of the fact it’s an island, it’s much harder to get things onto the island."
Trump concluded his statement by expressing his hope that "they don't get hit again" during this year's hurricane season, "because they were hit by two right in a row, and really the likes of which we have never seen before." White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, meanwhile, told reporters on Tuesday that the federal government is "focused on Puerto Rico's recovery and preparedness for the current hurricane season."