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Puerto Rico's governor: Victims of Hurricane Maria don't deserve "their pain to be questioned"

Puerto Rico gov. reacts to Trump on death toll
Puerto Rico Gov. Rosselló reacts to Trump's dispute of hurricane death toll 25:12

Puerto Rico's governor responded to President Trump's claim that nearly 3,000 people "did not die in the two hurricanes" that hit the island last year, and he's urging people not to politicize the recovery process. "Neither the people of Puerto Rico nor the victims deserve their pain to be questioned," Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told CBS News. 

Mr. Trump took to Twitter Thursday morning to dispute the official death toll in the wake of Hurricane Maria, writing: "When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 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 3000 ..."

In another tweet, Mr. Trump claimed the higher count 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." 

In fact, the number of deaths comes from an independent analysis by researchers at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, which was commissioned and accepted by the governor of Puerto Rico. It found around 2,975 more deaths than normal occurred in Puerto Rico from September 2017, when hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, to February 2018.

"We went through a rigorous scientific process, we externalized the investigation so that it was an independent investigation," Rosselló said.

The government initially reported just 64 deaths resulting from the hurricane. But that number only took into account deaths directly attributed to causes like flying debris, floods and drownings — not the increase in mortality from other causes related to the storm and conditions in its aftermath. Rosselló says it was always clear the smaller tally was incomplete.

"If you listen to all of our communications, mine in particular, every time we spoke about the death toll numbers in the early going after the storm, we always knew that that number was going to be much higher. We just needed to have a real, better mechanism for identifying," Rosselló said.

Mr. Trump's latest comments come just days after he said the federal response to Maria was "an incredible, unsung success." 

Rosselló said Puerto Rico is still in recovery, and now isn't the time to politicize the storm.

"We are U.S. citizens. The federal government needs to do right by our U.S. citizens and so far as I've stated in the past, we've had good relationships, we've had good results in some parts and bad results on some parts. Now our job as leaders is not to fuss over it or to fight. Our job is to identify what is done well and keep on doing it and what was done wrong, mitigate it and do it better moving towards the future," Rosselló said.

The governor also said this points to a bigger problem that needs to be addressed.

"After the storm, it is evident that the treatment that was given say Florida or Texas was very different than the treatment given in Puerto Rico," he said. "We are second-class U.S. citizens, we live in a colonial territory, it is time to eliminate that and I implore all the elected officials, particularly now in midterm elections, to have a firm stance. You're either for colonial territories or against them. You're either for giving equal rights to the U.S. citizens that live in Puerto Rico or you're against it."

This all comes as the federal government prepares to deal with Hurricane Florence. The hurricane has prompted storm watches or warnings for more than 10 million people, as well as evacuations for coastal communities in North and South Carolina and Virginia. Florence is expected to push up to 13 feet of storm surge and dump as much as 40 inches of rain over seven days.

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