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Trump rejects Puerto Rico storm death toll

US President Donald Trump has disputed Puerto Rico's official death toll of 3,000 from hurricanes last year and accused Democrats of inflating the figure that was reached in an independent academic study.

Trump bristled at criticism of his administration's handling of the Puerto Rico disaster as Hurricane Florence approached the coast of North Carolina bringing heavy rains that forecasters warn could cause catastrophic flooding across a wide swath of the US southeast.

Trump accused the Democrats of inflating the death toll in Puerto Rico "in order to make me look as bad as possible" but he did not provide evidence.

Read Next The White House, while describing any death from the hurricane as "a horror," sought to defend Trump's handling of the disaster, saying he had "directed the entire administration to provide unprecedented support to Puerto Rico."

"President Trump was responding to the liberal media and the San Juan mayor who sadly have tried to exploit the devastation by pushing out a constant stream of misinformation and false accusations," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement.

Some well-known Republicans split with Trump on the issue.

Privately, some White House officials were exasperated with the president's focus on Puerto Rico at a time when Hurricane Florence is bearing down on the Carolinas and other coastal areas.

In a tweet, Trump said, "3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000."

Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma before Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, destroying roads and bridges and leaving much of the Caribbean island without electricity for months.

The death toll from Maria, the most powerful storm to hit there in almost a century, was raised last month from 64, a number widely discounted as far too low, to 2,975.

That number was produced by public health experts at George Washington University in Washington, DC, in a report commissioned by the US territory's governor, Ricardo Rossello.

The study found that those deaths could be attributed directly or indirectly to Maria from the time it struck in September 2017 to mid-February of this year.

The report compared predicted mortality under normal circumstances