Newsrooms gasped this week after President Trump seemingly dismissed Hurricane Maria by contrasting it with a "real catastrophe" like 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
Here's the thing, though: The president wasn't saying that the hurricane that wrecked New Orleans was somehow worse or greater than the hurricane that wrecked Puerto Rico. He was comparing the federal government's response to both events.
Let's look at what Trump said:
"[T]his has been the toughest one. This has been a Category 5, which few people have ever even heard of – a Category 5 hitting land. But it hit land – and, boy, did it hit land," the president said at his presser, referring to Hurricane Maria, which was actually a Category 4 when it landed.
He continued, referring clearly to the "tremendous storms" that trashed Puerto Rico, and thanking first responders who came to the island after working on "two other catastrophic hurricanes."
It's always a tough job deciphering Trump's remarks, mostly because he dances all over the place and it's hard to pin down exactly what the hell he's trying to say. But it's pretty clear that he referred to the situation in Puerto Rico is a serious one.
Now, let's look at the part that left most people offended [emphasis added]:
If you look at the – every death is a horror. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering – nobody has ever seen anything like this. What is your death count, as of this moment – 17?
Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what's taken place in Puerto Rico.
(Quick side note: Puerto Rican authorities revised the hurricane's death toll to 34 following Trump's presser. For the record, 1,833 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)
The "real catastrophe" part stuck in many people's craw.
"Trump to Puerto Rico: your hurricane isn't a ‘real catastrophe' like Katrina," read a headline published by vox.com.
"The most uncomfortable part of Trump's remarks came when he began to compare Puerto Rico to Hurricane Katrina based on how many people had died, implying what was happening in Puerto Rico wasn't a ‘real catastrophe,'" the article read.
CNN ran a headline that read, "Trump contrasts Puerto Rico death toll to 'a real catastrophe like Katrina.'"
That particular article opened, "President Donald Trump told Puerto Rican officials Tuesday they should be ‘very proud' that hundreds of people haven't died after Hurricane Maria as they did in ‘a real catastrophe like Katrina.'"
The Atlantic's David Graham also saw the president's remarks as "problematic."
"The idea that Maria was not a ‘real catastrophe' defies all evidence, and any discussion of the death toll is premature," he wrote. "Trump's decision to use Hurricane Katrina as a benchmark … makes little sense and belittles the suffering in Puerto Rico. Katrina is both the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history since 1928 and a prime example of a mismanaged disaster. Trump also overstated the toll of Katrina, which was less than 2,000."
Again, Trump's rambling rhetorical style opens his remarks up to many reasonable and unflattering interpretations, but the one alleging he suggested Maria wasn't a "real catastrophe" seems unfair.
He clearly refers to Hurricane Maria as a big deal elsewhere in his comments, and his "real catastrophe" remarks were made in the context of commending the local and federal response.
The response to Hurricane Katrina was famously inept, and people died. The response was indeed a "real catastrophe." There are plenty of criticisms for how federal and local authorities have handled Hurricane Maria, but it's too early to say it has been either as bad or worse than Katrina.
Trump wasn't suggesting that the situation in Puerto Rico is small potatoes, or that Hurricane Maria wasn't a "real catastrophe." He was merely saying the federal response has so far been better than its response in 2005.
Small comfort, I know, but it's not the same thing as the president straight-up dismissing the hurricane as no big deal.