Amid doubts over White House’s ability to respond to Florence, Trump touts legacy in Puerto Rico

The official death count from Hurricane Maria is 2,975.

Shortly after Hurricane Maria made landfall, residents in this mountaintop community in Naguabo painted SOS on the road so relief workers in helicopters could see that they were in desperate need. CREDIT: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Shortly after Hurricane Maria made landfall, residents in this mountaintop community in Naguabo painted SOS on the road so relief workers in helicopters could see that they were in desperate need. CREDIT: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump is hailing his administration’s recovery efforts in Puerto Rico as “historic” even as Puerto Ricans continue to struggle with the hurricane’s enduring legacy.

The tragedy, which is believed to have killed nearly 3,000 people, has largely been seen as a stain on Trump’s presidency, one that has fueled concerns over the White House’s ability to effectively manage the growing crisis posed by Hurricane Florence.

In a press release marking the one year anniversary of Maria on Thursday, the White House touted its efforts in Puerto Rico as a landmark achievement.

“Never before has FEMA coordinated federal resources to rebuild an entire island of this size,” the statement said, going on to argue that “significant progress” has been made on the island and that Puerto Rico is largely back to its pre-Maria state.


“Puerto Rico’s entire electrical grid failed following Hurricane Maria, but today power has been restored to 99.99 percent of customers able to receive an electrical connection. Water systems were inoperable following Hurricane Maria, but today 99 percent of customers have had water restored,” the statement asserted.

That characterization paints a relatively rosy picture of what in reality was the longest blackout in U.S. history.

When Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane last year, the storm almost immediately devastated the island and destroyed its precarious electrical grid. In the months following the storm, much of Puerto Rico remained without power and, in many cases, water.

Hospitals were overwhelmed and stretched to their breaking point, while schools shuttered en masse amid water damage and an exodus of students to the mainland. Today, some Puerto Rican towns are in much the same state as in the days immediately following the hurricane.


One of the most disputed elements of the storm’s aftermath has been its death toll — something which the president to this day refuses to recognize.

Despite overwhelming evidence of a significant uptick in deaths, Puerto Rico’s government maintained an official death toll of 64 until last month. Studies have placed the death toll at anywhere between 1,052 and 5,740 people, with most estimates placing the number between 1,400 and 3,000. A George Washington University study commissioned by Puerto Rico’s government ultimately estimated the number to be 2,975, which is now the official death toll as of August 2018.

Reckoning over the true scope of Maria’s damage has been exacerbated by the mainland’s response. In the days following the hurricane, Trump toured the island, only to downplay the disaster and largely place blame for the island’s devastation on its pre-existing financial crisis.

He later defended his administration’s handling of Puerto Rico’s recovery process, even as power failed to return to the island and residents increasingly protested the missteps made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The agency inconsistently supplied food and water aid, in addition to sending workers to the island without Spanish language skills.

FEMA has since acknowledged poor preparation and under-staffing in the agency’s own assessment of its response to Maria. A March investigation by Politico also found that the Trump administration favored recovery efforts in Texas after Hurricane Harvey over Puerto Rico after Maria.


Through it all, Trump has doubled down and rejected criticism, even actively disputing the island’s revised death toll and accusing Democrats of overstating the numbers in order to cast the White House in a negative light.

The fallout from Maria is echoing through present day, as the Carolinas reel from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, which made landfall last Friday. At least 37 people have died in connection with the storm and many areas remain under water and inaccessible to residents. Toxic sites also pose a hazard, with breaches reported at coal ash sites and a number of hog lagoons currently leaking waste that could compromise the health of people along with the environment.

Florence marks another major environmental crisis for the Trump administration, but many Americans seem skeptical that the White House is prepared.

A Politico poll released this week found that of 1,564 registered voters surveyed, 49 percent trusted the federal government “not much” or “not at all” to handle local disaster relief efforts; 43 percent said they would trust such efforts “a lot” or “some.” Fifty-one percent also called Trump’s response to Maria “inappropriate,” while 55 percent said the government had not done enough in terms of disaster relief for Puerto Rico.

Trump toured North Carolina on Wednesday, with mixed results, and congratulated his administration’s efforts in addressing the storm. Meanwhile, Democratic senators are probing an administration decision to transfer nearly $10 million from FEMA during hurricane season to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which oversees much of the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Environmental advocates have also argued that the administration’s rollback of environmental regulations will make it much harder for North Carolina and its neighbors to recover from Florence.