WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) -- One would think all the talk would be about Hurricane Florence but instead, there are new and controversial arguments about a previous storm, Hurricane Maria.
President Donald Trump, has long insisted the death toll was under 20. In October 2017, shortly after the storm hit the island in September, Trump congratulated local officials, saying, "16 people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of the work your people and our people have done."
Puerto Rico later put the official number of casualties at 64. Subsequent studies were much higher. Harvard University declared it somewhere between 793 and 8,498. More recently, George Washington University (GWU) estimated there were 2,975 more deaths in the six months during and after the storm than there would be in a typical year without a devastating hurricane.
President Trump said Thursday the increased estimate was done by Democrats to make him look as bad as possible, and if a person died of old age or any reason, he claims, they (Democrats) just added them to the list.
GWU's Milken Institute defended the research in a statement Thursday, saying 2,975 represented "the most accurate and unbiased estimate" of excess deaths following Hurricane Maria. "This study, commissioned by the Government of Puerto Rico, was carried out with complete independence and freedom from any kind of interference," they added.
It sparked arguments from Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“He’s dead wrong and it’s just frustrating when he denies reality sometimes in order to protect himself," said Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.
"It’s clearly inaccurate and it’s misleading and it’s really playing politics with the lives of people,” claimed California Sen. Kamala Harris.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri explained that the study was done "by a respected American university, not the Democratic Party."
While an exact figure may never come, there are reasons for the discrepancies. Original estimates focused more on what are often described as direct deaths, like building collapses and drownings. Later studies included the effects of untreated dangerous illnesses or deaths from lack of water or power. A large number of deaths may not have been reported to or documented by the medical examiner’s office.
"Roads were washed out. Power was gone and the casualties mounted for a long time," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "So, I have no reason to dispute those numbers."