Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Brock Long has suggested that widely reported death toll figures from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico may be inflated because deaths from unrelated events made their way into the numbers.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Long suggested that a George Washington University (GWU) study — which concluded that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico as a result of last year’s hurricane — contained misleading numbers.
“The George Washington study looked at what happened six months after the fact,” Long said. “And what happens is, even in [Hurricane Florence] you might see more deaths indirectly 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 stop lights weren’t working.”
“There’s all kinds of studies on this that we can take a look at,” Long continued.
“Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anybody.”
Long, who was appointed as FEMA chief by President Donald Trump in April 2017, hailed his boss for being “very passionate about” and “incredibly supportive of” FEMA and its staff, adding that the support shown by Trump was unprecedented among U.S. presidents.
The comments came days after Trump made unsupported claims that the official death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria was deliberately boosted by Democrats to make him look “as bad as possible” even as he was raising “billions of dollars” to rebuild the island territory.
WATCH: Puerto Rico hurricane response ‘an incredible, unsung success’ says Trump
The GWU study states that researchers took into account regular and predicted death rates, death certificate data and other relevant information before using a sophisticated mathematical model to estimate so-called “excess deaths” in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
The researchers assessed mortality rates between 2010 and 2017, before comparing that figure to the number of deaths that occurred six months after the devastating Category 5 hurricane.
“We stand by the science underlying our study, which found there were an estimated 2,975 excess deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria,” the university’s Milken Institute School of Public Health said in a statement on Thursday following Trump’s remarks.
“The study, commissioned by the Government of Puerto Rico, was carried out with complete independence and freedom from any kind of interference.”
Asked by NBC for his response to Trump’s criticism of the GWU study, Long said, “I don’t know why the studies were done.”
WATCH: Paul Ryan says he has no reason to dispute Puerto Rico death toll
Long’s comments come days after reports emerged that he was under investigation by a federal watchdog for misusing government vehicles for personal use.
Long has maintained that he never intentionally misused government vehicles, and said he’d cooperate with any investigation.