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Brock Long, FEMA chief, avoids Trump Hurricane Maria death toll controversy

FEMA chief Brock Long on Sunday declined to criticize President Trump for claiming Puerto Rico’s death toll from Hurricane Maria had been inflated to help Democrats in a mid-term year.

Mr. Long, who is steeped in the response to Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, said it’s hard to referee the dispute over whether 3,000 people died because of last year’s storm, since studies vary.

“There’s a lot of issues with numbers being all over the place,” he told Fox News Sunday. “It’s hard to tell what’s accurate and what’s not.”

Mr. Trump enraged Democrats by claiming their party helped researchers inflate the Maria toll from the mid-teens, when he visited in the wake of the storm, to the thousands a year later.

He said unrelated deaths were added to the list to boost his rivals in a mid-term election year.

“This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics.”

Florida Republicans running for office distanced themselves from the comments, while Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello asked the president to show more empathy for the island’s citizens.

Mr. Long didn’t defend the president’s comments but didn’t push back, either.

“There’s several different studies out there that are over the place,” Mr. Long told Fox.

He said Puerto Rico’s problems were due in part to an old electrical grid and the lack of usual safeguards that allow places to respond to storms.

Typically, the response relies on what he referred to as a four-legged chair — the federal government, state/local governments, the private sector and neighbors helping neighbors.

In Puerto Rico, he said, “there were several parts of that chair missing.”

Mr. Long said his agency is working hard to correct those issues on the island.

But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic candidate for Congress, said there is a systemic problem at play, arguing Washington has a “modern-day colonial relationship” with Puerto Rico.

“It is acute situations like this in which Puerto Ricans continue to be treated like second-class citizens,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who upset Rep. Joe Crowley in his New York City primary, said on CNN.

For now, federal responders are focused on Hurricane Florence, which slammed into the Carolina coast in recent days. So far, 14 deaths have been blamed on the storm.

Mr. Long said federal efforts are focused on helping local responders and preserving life. He urged affected residents to stay out of flooded streets that are deceptively dangerous.

Manhole covers could be missing, he noted, and the “road might not be there, could be washed out.”

“Don’t become a victim,” he said.

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