In President Donald Trump’s first public remarks in Puerto Rico, he shed almost no light on the federal response to the crisis there. What he did do was praise himself, tell the hurricane-ravaged island that it was putting the U.S. federal budget “out of whack,” and - perhaps most questionably - compare death counts between Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Katrina.
It was a characteristically Trump performance: offbeat, impromptu, meandering and often highly suspect in its taste. Toward the end, Trump brought up the Katrina comparison, suggesting it - unlike Maria in Puerto Rico - was a “real catastrophe.” Trump asked for the official death toll in Puerto Rico, guessed wrong, and then repeatedly emphasized the comparison.
Here are the comments:
“TRUMP: We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the - every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous - hundred and hundred and hundreds of people that died. And you look at what happened here with really a storm that was totally overpowering. Nobody’s ever seen anything like this. And what is your death count at this point, 17?
“AIDE: Sixteen, certified.
“TRUMP: Sixteen people, certified - 16 people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people.”
Trump’s tweets and public comments on Puerto Rico have almost all been in this vein - playing up the success of the response and guarding against the idea that it could be judged as a failure. He attacked the mayor of San Juan over the weekend after she criticized the federal response.
But comparing death tolls is a questionable decision for a few reasons.
The first is that it’s just … yucky. Of course the number of dead will play into however the disaster response is judged, but Trump was clearly taking this moment of great tragedy to try to cover himself against Katrina comparisons. They’ve been lingering for days, and his inclusion of the death toll comparison was an effort to combat them. Even for a guy constantly minding his reputation in very public ways, that’s pretty bold.
The second is that death toll is very likely inaccurate and very likely to rise. The loss of electricity on the island has led to a lack of communication, and the official death toll has stayed the same for days. But the Center for Investigative Journalism has been calling hospitals and estimates that there have actually been dozens of deaths - which Puerto Rico’s public safety secretary confirmed Monday - and that the number could rise into the hundreds.
There have also been suggestions that the death toll could rise much higher than that, possibly even into the thousands - especially if the Guajataca Dam fails. The dam has been a concern ever since the hurricane left a crack in it, and 70,000 living near the dam were ordered to evacuate this weekend for fear of another massive tragedy. Even if that doesn’t happen, situations like this are full of unexpected events, and the scope of the devastation in certain parts of the island is still something of a mystery.
And then there’s the simple fact that these are two very different tragedies. Katrina included a devastating blow to a populous area that happened to be below sea level, and the levees and flood walls failed. Many of the 1,833 people in Katrina’s death toll died instantly or as they were awaiting rescue in the days afterward. It became a big deal because of the death toll, yes, but also because public officials were seen as failing to grasp the severity of the tragedy in time to stop preventable deaths.
Puerto Rico, meanwhile, is much more a humanitarian relief effort. And if more die, it will probably happen slowly and lead to obvious questions about whether the aid arrived quickly enough. If we again see preventable deaths happening - even by the dozens or hundreds - that will be a real problem for Trump.
Aaron Blake is a Washington Post columnist.