WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Donald Trump sparked a fierce backlash on Thursday after he disputed Puerto Rico's official death toll of 3,000 from last year's hurricanes.
In a tweet, the president said "800 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. 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 800."
He accused Democrats of inflating the figure reached in an independent academic study "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. Bad politics," he tweeted, without giving any evidence that the number was wrong.
In response, top officials in Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory located in the northeast Caribbean Sea, came out against the president's claim.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said in a Facebook video that he accepted as the official death toll reached in an independent study that nearly 3,000 died in the island from Hurricane Maria.
"The victims of Puerto Rico, and the people of Puerto Rico in general, do not deserve to be questioned about their pain," Rossello said in the video post in Spanish.
Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma before Hurricane Maria battered it in September 2017, destroying roads and bridges and plunging the island into a months-long blackout.
The independent study conducted by researchers at The George Washington University concluded late last month that 2,975 people in Puerto Rico died from the September 2017 storm and its aftermath.
The Puerto Rico government afterwards raised the official death count from Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to hit there in almost a century, from 64 initially to 2,975, agreeing that the number of people who succumbed in the aftermath had been severely undercounted.
The U.S. federal government has been heavily criticized for its response to the storm and the island's recovery efforts.
Trump's false claim about the death count is "delusional, paranoid, and unhinged from any sense of reality," Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of Puerto Rico's capital San Juan, tweeted.
"Trump is so vain he thinks this is about him. NO IT IS NOT." she tweeted, "This is NOT about politics this was always about SAVING LIVES."
House Speaker Paul Ryan also distanced himself from the president's claim. He told reporters that he has "no reason to dispute" an independent study.
Even Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, who is the Republican nominee for Senate in the state, rejected the president's claims.
"I disagree with @POTUS," Scott tweeted. "An independent study said thousands were lost and Gov. Rossello agreed. I've been to Puerto Rico 7 times & saw devastation firsthand. "
Also on Thursday, researchers from The George Washington University said that their study was the most "accurate and unbiased" assessment of mortality following Hurricane Maria.
The study was commissioned by the Puerto Rico government and was carried out "with complete independence," the researchers said in a statement issued by the university's Milken Institute School of Public Health.