WASHINGTON — FEMA Administrator Brock Long Sunday questioned the relevance of independent studies tying thousands of deaths to the aftermath of last September's hurricane in Puerto Rico, echoing President Donald Trump's criticism of those findings as Florence continues to batter the Carolinas.
Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Long defended the president for his response to Hurricane Maria last year and argued that findings from multiple academic studies were "all over the place."
"I think the president is being taken out of context there," Long said. "I mean, I talked to the president every day this week, and the secretary of homeland security, and we discuss what we're trying to do as a result of last year."
“I don’t know why the studies were done," Long said when asked about Trump's claims that the study was "done by Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible."
"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," Long said.
"The numbers are all over the place. FEMA doesn't count deaths. And if you take what's going on with Florence, the deaths that are verified by the local county coroners are the ones that we take."
A George Washington University study, which was specifically targeted by the president in recent days, linked an estimated 2,975 deaths to last year's Hurricane Maria. The Puerto Rican government commissioned that study for more than $300,000.
While the study's finding was far higher than the initial death count of 64, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has accepted the George Washington analysis and declared that higher toll a "fact" in a statement this week in response to Trump's criticism.
Earlier studies have estimated different death tolls, some higher than the George Washington study and some lower. But all estimates are above that initial count of 64 deaths.
On Sunday, Long attempted to distinguish the direct deaths from "indirect deaths," arguing that there was only a tenuous link between those and the hurricane and the federal government's response.
"The GW study looked at what happened six months after the fact," Long said.
"You might see more deaths indirectly occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress, they fall off their house trying to fix their roof, they die in car crashes because they went through an intersection where the stoplights weren’t working," he said.
He went on to add that the agency looks at "all kinds of studies," noting that while spousal abuse rates go up after disasters, "you can't blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anybody."
Long praised the president for his support for FEMA, including the ongoing response in North and South Carolina, where Florence continues to churn. "One thing about President Trump is that he is probably the one president that has had more support for what goes on back here. And I think he's defensive because he knows how hard these guys behind me work day in and day out for a very complex situation."
As Florence was bearing down on the coast earlier this week, Trump revisited criticism of his administration's response in Puerto Rico a year ago.
He called the federal government's response an "incredible unsung success" during a Tuesday briefing, and questioned the validity of the George Washington study in the following days.
Long on Sunday also denied reports that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen recently asked him to step down in the midst of an investigation into whether he misused government vehicles in traveling to and from his home in North Carolina on the weekends.
Politico first reported the existence of the investigation, and the Wall Street Journal reported late Friday that the White House had discussed replacing Long even as he prepared to face down Florence.
Telling NBC's Chuck Todd that he will not resign, Long defended his conduct.
"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 totally focused on Florence," he said.
"I have a very critical and important role to make sure this government works on the nation's worst day through continuity in government. These vehicles are designed to provide secure communications and the program was actually developed in 2008 — it ran for me the same way it's run for anybody else. Its my understanding that maybe some policies were not developed around these vehicles that we will clear up."