September 13, 2018 at 11:27 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Trump dismissal of Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico death toll condemned

Damage and debris from Hurricane Maria on a beach in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. President Trump’s dismissal of Maria’s official death toll of 2,975 in the U.S. commonwealth has sparked widespread condemnation. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

President Trump was widely condemned on Thursday when he dismissed Hurricane Maria’s official death toll in Puerto Rico without any credible evidence to support his claims.

“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” said Trump in one of two tweets, referring to Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20, 2017, and Hurricane Irma, which brushed the U.S. commonwealth less than two weeks earlier. “When I left the island, after the storm had hit, they had anywhere from six 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 3,000.”

Trump in a second tweet accused Democrats of inflating the death toll “in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising billions of dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico.”

“If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list,” he said. “Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico.”

Trump made his comments less than three weeks after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló accepted the findings of a George Washington University study that attributed 2,975 deaths to Maria. Trump also took to Twitter as Hurricane Florence was beginning to batter the North Carolina coast.

“The president’s statements questioning the number of people who died as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are deplorable,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a staff attorney for Lambda Legal who is from Puerto Rico, told the Washington Blade on Thursday from the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. “They demonstrate that the president is not only divorced from reality, but also his utter disregard for people’s suffering and, frankly, his cruelty.”

“Nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died as a result of Hurricanes Maria and Irma,” he added. “Their lives matter.”

A utility pole rests precariously on a power line in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 31, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBTI Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Maria, echoed Gonzalez-Pagan when he spoke to the Blade on Thursday from Puerto Rico. Labiosa added Trump’s tweets “reflect the lack of acceptance of Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens.”

“It reflects that Puerto Rico is not a commonwealth but a colony of U.S. that we can be dispensable to the U.S.,” Labiosa told the Blade.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is among those who remain vocal critics of Trump’s response to Maria, which included throwing paper towels into a crowd of people at a suburban San Juan church less than two weeks after the hurricane made landfall. Cruz on Thursday in a lengthy statement said Trump’s comments show “a lack of respect for our reality and our pain.”

“He simply is unable to grasp the human suffering that his neglect and lack of sensibility have caused us,” said Cruz. “3,000 people died on his watch and (it is) his inability to grasp that makes him dangerous.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz speaks at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Nov. 1, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Tom Hausman)

Rosselló, who has been reluctant to criticize Trump, also pushed back against the tweets.

“Neither the people of Puerto Rico nor the victims deserve their pain to be questioned,” Rosselló told CBS News.

San Juan mayor: ‘Our lives matter’

Maria had winds of 155 mph when it made landfall.

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans did not have electricity or access to safe drinking water for months.

Labiosa and other activists in Puerto Rico with whom the Blade has spoken have said people with HIV/AIDS did not have access to antiretroviral drugs in the days and weeks after Maria’s landfall. They also said LGBTI Puerto Ricans faced discrimination at emergency shelters across the island.

Houses with blue tarps as temporary roofs were still commonplace throughout the San Juan metropolitan area and southeastern Puerto Rico in May when this reporter was on the island.

CBS News reporter David Begnaud on Thursday reported FEMA said it moved millions of bottles of water to an old runway in Ceiba, a town on Puerto Rico’s northeast coast, that were photographed this week with weathered tarps over them.

BuzzFeed on Tuesday reported FEMA approved only 75 of the 2,431 requests for funeral assistance it received from Puerto Ricans after Maria. Trump on the same day again defended his administration’s response to Maria as he spoke with reporters at the White House about Florence.

“While he is busy trying to ‘save face,’ he will continue to turn his back on all those who suffer,” said Cruz on Thursday in her statement. “Simply put: He is fully unhinged from reality. One thing is for sure, our lives matter and we do not need a tweet from Trump to remind of us that.”

Labiosa agreed, noting his organization and others continue to help Puerto Ricans recover from Maria and Irma. Labiosa also told the Blade that Waves Ahead, SAGE Puerto Rico and other groups that continue to provide assistance to LGBTI Puerto Ricans are also working to respond to the island’s growing mental health crisis.

“The community, diaspora, and local non-government entities are making the difference by working hard to provide the necessary services to those devastated by the hurricanes,” he told the Blade.

Ricky Santiago, center, talks with two women who are visiting him at his new home in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Hurricane Maria destroyed his hair salon and damaged his family’s home. (Photo courtesy of Waves Ahead)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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