U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday rejected the official death toll from last year's Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, saying it had been inflated to almost 3,000 as part of a ploy to make him look bad.
The true human cost of Maria, and the chaotic federal response to the storm, triggered a year-long controversy, which Trump revived this week even as another powerful hurricane, Florence, bore down on the East Coast.
"3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico," Trump tweeted early Thursday. "When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths."
"Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000..." he said, going on to claim: "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."
"If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list."
Hurricane Maria killed 2,975 people in Puerto Rico, a long-awaited independent investigation into the 2017 storm concluded last month. It was initially said to have killed just 64 people.
After nearly a year of controversy over the figures, the governor of the U.S. island territory said the new estimate would now be considered the official death toll.
Hurricane Florence is the first major test of the Federal Emergency Management Agency since its much-criticized response to Maria, which caused devastation when it struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm a year ago.
A U.S. government report published this month concluded that the federal response in Puerto Rico was hampered by a lack of trained staff as well as by major logistical challenges.
But Trump has continued to boast about the handling of Maria, calling it "an incredible unsung success" as he warned residents of the Carolinas not to take chances with Florence.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz called the president's latest comments "delusional, paranoid and unhinged from any sense of reality."
"Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. It is not," she said on her official Twitter account.
"Damn it, this is not about politics, this was always about saving lives," she told NBC television. Cruz had earlier described the federal disaster response in the U.S. territory a "despicable act of neglect."
"If (Trump) doesn't learn from his mistakes, he's going to make them again and people are going to continue to die," she told CNN television.
In the House of Representatives, Democratic whip Steny Hoyer called Trump's twitter comments "beyond comprehension and deeply offensive to the thousands of American families who lost loved ones."
"Only Donald Trump would try to make the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans into a story about himself and his political fortunes," he said. "Shame on him, and shame on this Congress for not holding him and his Administration accountable for their role in these tragic and preventable deaths."
- Death toll -
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello also has criticized Trump for not providing additional federal funds still needed for emergency housing and debris removal.
Rossello is a leader of the island's pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which aligns with Republicans, while Cruz is from the Popular Democratic Party, whose members affiliate with the Democratic Party.
Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's electricity grid, leaving the island largely without power for weeks and crippling its health care system.
Despite the low initial official death toll, outside studies showed that the impact on mortality in the three months after the storm was far greater than the initial toll.
A Harvard University study released in May estimated that more than 4,600 people may have died as a result of the hurricane.
Then on August 28, an epidemiological study by George Washington University commissioned by the island's government concluded that 2,975 people were killed as a result of the storm.
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