TAMPA — Former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rosselló may have endorsed Sen. Bill Nelson in part because of the Florida Democrat's response to Hurricane Maria. But Rosselló is skeptical of a study Nelson has repeatedly cited when discussing the death toll on the island from the storm.
Rosselló, who led Puerto Rico from 1993 to 2000, said a recent Harvard University study into hurricane-related mortality on the island is flawed. The study suggested 4,650 people may have died, which would be a monumental increase over the official count of 64.
"The final count that can be indirectly attributed to the hurricanes, it should be higher" than 64, Rosselló said. "But it certainly is not going to be 4,000-plus deaths that are unaccounted for."
Nelson has often criticized President Donald Trump's handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the recent Harvard University study provided him and other Democrats with new fodder to go after the administration.
"How do you miss over 4,000 deaths?" Nelson tweeted on May 29. He referenced the study again two days later during a visit to St. Petersburg, where he said conditions in the U.S. territory — many people are still without power — lead him to believe the death toll is much higher.
"It's a lot more and I think this study is showing that it is and it is absolutely inexcusable," Nelson told reporters.
But standing next to Nelson on Monday, Rosselló cautioned against using the university's estimate as fact. The comments came moments after Rosselló endorsed Nelson in his re-election race against Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Rosselló is weighing in as more than just a Puerto Rico politician. He is a Harvard- and Yale-trained physician who taught public health at George Washington University after his two terms as governor.
He is also the father of current Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló.
Harvard researchers randomly surveyed 3,300 Puerto Rican households about their experiences during Maria and extrapolated the results across the entire island to determine that between 800 and 8,500 people likely died. The publicized number — 4,645 — is in the middle of that range.
Rosselló questioned that methodology and charged that researchers skewed results by surveying some of the territory's hardest hit regions. He said a more accurate tally will come when official government death certificates are finalized.
"If you came in here and said, 'What's the price of a cup of coffee,' and I said, 'Well it can be $1 or it can be $10 dollars,' it really doesn't help," Rosselló said. "Where are those 8,000 people? There's no record of 4,000 or 8,000 bodies that have been lost."
Other reports have suggested the official government count of people killed in the aftermath of Maria is low. A New York Times analysis found about 1,000 more people than usual died in the 42 days after Maria hit the island. In the days after the storm, Buzzfeed News interviewed funeral directors who said the death toll was much higher than the government figures.