The U.S. emergency management chief cast new doubt Sunday on just how many people died last year on the island territory of Puerto Rico during the devastating Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told NBC's Meet the Press show, "The numbers are all over the place." In another interview, he told Fox News, "It's hard to tell what's accurate and what's not."
The initial death toll in the storm almost exactly a year ago was 64. But several studies in recent months have pegged the number of deaths as much higher, 2,975, according to last month's study by George Washington University, a figure that drew the ire last week of President Donald Trump. The Puerto Rican government accepted the new figure as the official count.
But the president rejected the 2,975 figure, saying Democrats had inflated it "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. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!"
The university study compared deaths in the past during the same months in other years to those that occurred after Hurricane Maria, and attributed the excess number to the hurricane. The island was ravaged by the storm, its roads badly damaged and leaving much of it without power for months. In many cases, that curtailed medical treatment for those who needed it most and people died.
Long did not accept Trump's contention that opposition Democrats influenced the university study, which the researchers have rejected.
"I don't know why the studies were done," Long told NBC. "I think what we're trying to do, in my opinion, is figure out why people die from direct deaths, which is the wind, the water and the waves, buildings collapsing, which is probably where the 65 number came from."
"And then there's indirect deaths," he said. "So the George Washington study looked at what happened six months after the fact."
He said that even with the current death toll of a dozen or more resulting from Hurricane Florence and its aftermath, "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 stop lights weren't working."
"There's all kinds of studies we look at," he said. "Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can't blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anybody. So much blame going around."
"What we need to be focused on is what Puerto Rico is going to look like tomorrow," he said.