brock long

FEMA Administrator Doesn’t Get Why People Care About the Real Death Toll From Hurricane Maria

Puerto what now? Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the midst of managing the federal government’s response to Hurricane Florence, whose remains continue to batter the Carolinas — and fending off reports that he may about to be fired — FEMA administrator Brock Long appeared on Meet the Press Sunday, in what looked to be an unseemly attempt to prove his loyalty to President Trump.

During an interview that covered the FEMA response to Florence, among other topics, Chuck Todd asked Long about an incendiary round of tweets this week from the president. Trump has repeatedly claimed that a recent George Washington University study finding that almost 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria is not only inaccurate, but part of a Democratic plot to make him look bad. The federal government’s response to the devastating storm last September was widely criticized as slow and ineffective, and Trump has been downplaying the storm’s human toll since days after it hit.

Long said that Trump’s bizarre tweets could be attributed to his defensiveness about how hard FEMA works, an assertion that strains credulity, to put it mildly. He then took issue with the accuracy of the Maria death toll count. “The numbers are all over the place,” Long said, referring to a previous study, conducted by Harvard, that found about 4,600 deaths attributable to the storm. (The new survey’s count, seen as more thorough and reliable, has been adopted by Puerto Rico as the official death toll.)

When Todd pressed him to respond directly to Trump’s conspiracy theory, Long said, “I don’t think the studies … I don’t know why the studies were done. In my opinion, what we’ve got to do is figure out why people die from direct deaths, which is the wind, the water and the waves, buildings collapsing.” He argued that some of the deaths attributed to Maria might be so tangentially related to the storm as to be meaningless. “You might see more deaths indirectly occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress,” he said. “They fall off their house trying to fix their roof, they die in car crashes because they went through an intersection where the step lights weren’t working.” Long also invoked a more eyebrow-raising example. Spousal abuse, he said, “goes through the roof” in the aftermath of hurricanes, and “you can’t blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anyone.”

The clumsiness of his example aside, the deaths tracked by the George Washington study — which compared medical records in Maria’s aftermath to those in a normal year — fell into a much different category than the one Long describes. The victims it described were typically old or poor people with serious medical conditions, who could not be given life-saving drugs or reach a hospital for procedures like kidney dialysis because of widespread damage and power outages after the storm. Though FEMA doesn’t include such fatalities in its tally of storm deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does. And commonly accepted tolls from previous storms, like the 1,833 attributed to Hurricane Katrina, include these kinds of deaths.

It’s understandable that Long doesn’t want his agency to be associated with the grievous loss of life that the George Washington study describes. But his incuriosity at why such a study would be commissioned in the first place, as Puerto Ricans continue to reckon with the catastrophe that upended their home a year ago — and the inadequate government reaction to it — is startling.

Not long after Long’s appearance, Trump chimed in with an endorsement of his agency, though it’s unclear if the two events were related.

This week, Politico and the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Homeland Security has been investigating whether Long inappropriately used government vehicles during his frequent trips between Washington and his home of North Carolina. DHS head Kirstjen Nielsen has confronted him over the issue, and one official said she even asked him to resign. The Journal reported that the White House has actively been discussing replacements. Long, whom the Washington Post describes as “highly respected” throughout FEMA, addressed the reports on Meet the Press.

“Look, let me go ahead and clear up all the news. Secretary Nielsen has never asked me to resign. We have a very functional and professional relationship. We talk every day. We are both solely focused on Florence.”

One thing they’re clearly not focused on: what really happened in Puerto Rico last year.

FEMA Head Defends Trump’s Bizarre Puerto Rico Tweets