Trump Rejects Death Toll In Puerto Rico

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just as Americans prepare for an approaching hurricane, President Trump has seized attention by offering a conspiracy theory about an earlier storm. The new storm is Florence, approaching the Carolinas today. The old one was Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last year. Public health officials now estimate that about 3,000 people lost their lives as a consequence of that storm. And President Trump is saying today that number was developed to make him look bad.

Joining us now is Adriana De Jesus Salaman. She's a reporter from NotiCel and joins us on the line from Puerto Rico. Good morning.

ADRIANA DE JESUS SALAMAN: Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: I'm doing fine, thank you. So the president asserts 3,000 people did not die in the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. He says when he visited Puerto Rico after the storm, it was less than 20 deaths, and only later did the death figure go up. I guess that is literally true. But why was it that the death figure took so long to climb?

SALAMAN: Well, for about a year since Hurricane Maria, the government officials had been hell-bent that the death count was 64 - the official death count. Obviously, that, you know, as you guys know, that sparked a lot of rumors. But the government still believed that the official death count was 64. It was 16 when Trump came to Puerto Rico. And right when Air Force One left, it rose up to, like, 36, which also sparked a lot of suspicion.

INSKEEP: But it's interesting that you mentioned this. It was Puerto Rican officials who were giving a low death toll.

SALAMAN: Yes.

INSKEEP: It ultimately was outsiders who conducted their own study that found many more deaths, right?

SALAMAN: Yeah. It was mainly news organizations, investigative reporters like Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, and then I think CNN joined in. And obviously, local and international media got involved in that conversation because it was very obvious when you had people telling you, hey, my uncle died because he didn't have access to a generator and his health condition requires him to have electricity, but he's not in the official death count, and so and so.

INSKEEP: Now you're just raising a really interesting point that I want to drive home here. One reason that it might've taken a while to get such a high death count is that people didn't necessarily die on the day of the storm. We're talking about people who went months without electricity, for example, and that's the kind of thing that tends to increase mortality.

SALAMAN: Yeah. It's not just direct causes like, you know, flooding or extreme winds and taking your roof off your head. It's also indirect. That's the lack of electricity, the lack of running water, the lack of food. That's why the government hired an institution - George Washington University - to make the official death count. But if you see their study, their study comprehends September throughout February. So the government - they knew that the indirect causes kept being - you know, shown up since September from a long period of time.

INSKEEP: Just very briefly, does the Puerto Rican government now accept this figure of close to 3,000 dead?

SALAMAN: They seemed like they accepted it because they paid for the study for George Washington University, but they don't fully accept it just yet.

INSKEEP: Interesting. So still some discussion here. And we have the backdrop to a conspiracy theory offered by President Trump today. Adriana De Jesus Salaman of NotiCel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, thank you very much.

SALAMAN: Oh, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.