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Trump tries empathy after dismissing Puerto Rico death toll Storms in Carolinas approached differently By MICHAEL K. LAVERS President Trump visited North Carolina on Sept. 19 to assess the devastation caused in the Carolinas by Hurricane Florence. Though the rain has stopped, “this event is not over,” Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long told him. “The rivers are still cresting. We still have a lot of work to do.” Trump called Hurricane Florence “one of the most powerful and devastating storms ever to hit our country.” He added: “To the families who have lost loved ones, America grieves with you and our hearts break for you. God bless you. We will never forget your loss. We will never leave your side. We are with you all the way….To all of those impacted by this terrible storm, our entire American family is with you and ready to help you will recover.” Hurricane Florence is blamed for 32 deaths so far. But Trump’s response to the tragedy in the Carolinas is a far cry from his response to the ongoing devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria one year ago, on Sept. 20, 2017. Just the opposite. Despite a study produced by researchers at George Washington University that placed the death toll at 2,975 Puerto Ricans—equivalent to the number of deaths caused by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001—Trump refuses to acknowledge the calamity. “3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Trump tweeted on Sept. 13, referring to Maria 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 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.”

Damage and debris from Hurricane Maria on a beach in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1. Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers

“The president’s statements questioning the number of people who died as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are deplorable,” Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a staff attorney for Lambda Legal from Puerto Rico, told the Washington Blade 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.” 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 Sept. 13 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 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.” 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. BuzzFeed reported  that FEMA approved only 75 of the 2,431 requests for funeral assistance it received from Puerto Ricans after Maria. Trump 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,” Cruz said in a 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. – Karen Ocamb contributed to this story. Editor’s note: Michael K. Lavers is in Puerto Rico to report on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. Follow him on Twitter at @mklavers81

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