FEMA boss defends Trump's Puerto Rico death toll denial: 'The numbers are all over the place'

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s roundly criticized denial of the official death toll in Puerto Rico from last year’s Hurricane Maria.

An estimated 2,975 people lost their lives in the storm and in its aftermath, according to a recently released study commissioned by Puerto Rico’s government and conducted by researchers at George Washington University. Puerto Rico officials adopted the figure as the official number of deaths linked to the storm.

But FEMA administrator Brock Long, when asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether his agency accepts that death count, said that “the numbers are all over the place.”

“FEMA doesn’t count deaths,” Long told host Chuck Todd.

Referring to the storm now battering North and South Carolina, he added that “if you take what’s going on with [Hurricane] Florence, the deaths that are verified by the local county coroners are the ones that we take.”

Trump sparked an intense backlash on Thursday when he accused Democrats of making up “really large numbers” of deaths in Puerto Rico to make him “look as bad as possible.”

RELATED: Hundreds of shoes form memorial in Puerto Rico

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Hundreds of shoes form memorial in Puerto Rico
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Hundreds of shoes form memorial in Puerto Rico
Shoes are displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Shoes are displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A couple takes pictures of shoes displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People stand among hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
People look at hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A Puerto Rican flag is seen on a pair of shoes as hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
Votive candles are seen over pairs of shoes displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A Puerto Rican flag is seen on a pair of shoes as hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A woman stands among hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
A woman walks among hundreds of pairs of shoes displayed at the Capitol to pay tribute to Hurricane Maria's victims after a research team led by Harvard University estimated that 4,645 people lost their lives, a number not confirmed by the government, in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez
View of displayed shoes in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan, on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man looks at hundreds of shoes displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator places a candle next to empty pairs of shoes displayed outside the Capital building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Candles sit inside pairs of shoes displayed outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A plant sits inside an empty pair of shoes outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A demonstrator places a candle next to empty pairs of shoes displayed outside the Capital building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A woman prays in front of hundreds of shoes that were displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman prays in front of hundreds of shoes that were displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan, on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman holds a placard that reads in English '4645 deaths and my dad was one them' in front of hundreds of shoes displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan, on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman holds a placard that reads in English 'genocide' in front of hundreds of shoes that were displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
View of displayed shoes in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan, on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
View of displayed shoes in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan, on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman lights up a candle inside a pair of shoes that were among hundreds displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman and a kid take pictures of shoes displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman lights up a candle inside a pair of shoes that were among hundreds displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman holds a placard that reads in English 'genocide' in front of hundreds of shoes that were displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. - Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017, is likely responsible for the deaths of more than 4,600 people, some 70 times more than official estimates, US researchers said Tuesday. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators stand near empty pairs of shoes displayed outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Empty pairs of shoes sit outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads 'Genocide' near empty pairs of shoes displayed outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A candle rests inside a pair of shoes displayed outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A sign reads '4645 Souls' near pairs of empty shoes displayed outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A sign reads '4645' near empty shoes outside the Capitol building in this aerial photograph taken during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A demonstrator places an empty pair of shoes on display outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Empty pairs of baby shoes hang on display outside the Capitol building during a protest against the government's reporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, June 1, 2018. Hurricane Maria probably killed about 5,000 people in Puerto Rico last year even though the official count remains at just 64, according to a Harvard University study released Tuesday. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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No evidence has emerged to support his claim that Democrats had anything to do with the GWU report.

Long, a Trump appointee who assumed office in June 2017, did not condemn the president’s outlandish accusation when asked by Todd if he believes the numerous studies that have found that several thousand people died because of Hurricane Maria’s devastation were an effort to hurt Trump’s reputation.

“I don’t know why the studies were done,” Long said. “I think what we’re trying to do ― in my opinion, 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.”

The Puerto Rican government revised Hurricane Maria’s official death toll from 64 to 2,975 last month following the GWU study’s release. Independent investigations conducted separately by The New York Times, Penn State University and Harvard University also estimated Maria’s death toll to be in the thousands.

Still, Long claimed the studies’ findings were “all over the place” and “frustrating.”

He praised Trump’s support for FEMA, adding that the president was being “defensive” about the death toll reports because “he knows how hard these guys behind me work.”

“There’s just too much blame going around,” he added. “And we need to be focused ... on what is Puerto Rico going to look like tomorrow.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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