Flint Water Crisis

Photo: Sarah Cunningham, Flint 2016

Lately, I see less and less coverage of Flint in the national headlines. Some major news outlets haven’t even updated their Flint Water Crisis Timelines since the middle of last year. This weighs on me.

If my two boys–7 and 4–had grown up just 90 miles from where they’re being raised, right here in the very same state of Michigan, their lives would’ve taken a tragic turn. And while I can’t, for a second, imagine how Flint’s mothers and fathers feel as doctors confirm their children are victims of lead poisoning, I can guess that one thing that would heap on the pain is feeling like the rest of the nation is forgetting about you.

It’s Been 1,000 Days

Recently, I spent the 1,000th day of the Flint Water crisis with 3 of the city’s leading water activists: Mom and advocate Melissa Mays, Engineering Professor Dr. Laura Sullivan, and Community Organizer Naayirah Shariff.

Nayirrah Shariff. Photo: Sarah Cunningham, Jan. 2017.

Dr.Laura Sullivan. Photo: Sarah Cunningham, Jan. 2017.

Melissa Mays and Sarah. Jan. 2017.

After hours of listening as these women updated me on the state of their city, I can’t help but issue an unusual plea to my readers. I think a lot of the content on this website is important, friends. But…if you’re only going to read one page on this site, read this one. Or if you only have time to watch one video here, watch one of the ones below.

Some History

Every February, when I’ve scraped my car windows in the bitter wind for the 11,000th time, I ask myself, Out of all the 50 states we’re free to live in, why did we choose Michigan again?

Except I know why.

There’s something steady and solid about the people who live here in America’s heartland. Although, even calling it that–the heartland–underlines how things have changed for this state over time.

The midwest was first nicknamed the heartland for its central role in industrial production. Then–maybe to reflect the changing landscape–people began using the term to describe slow-living in small towns and farms scattered across these states.

That’s what happened here in Michigan. The automobile crisis hit hard. The auto industry–which many had staked their livelihoods in–was downsized and outsourced. And it wasn’t just Detroit that suffered. It was a whole list of manufacturing towns–big and small–whose primary source of revenue was supplying the auto industry with parts.

Flint is no exception. Its roots were intertwined with those of the auto industry. Chevy and General Motors set up shop and residents with little experience could be trained to work in the plants. There was good money to be made. By the 1960’s, the city population reached nearly 200,000 people–85,000 of which were employed by GM.  In it’s heyday, this very same Flint was a boom town.

Photo: Sarah Cunningham. Jan, 2017.

Flint Today

Compared to days of old, the city of Flint has inarguably hit hard times. Plant closures in the 1990’s and 2000’s pushed unemployment rates up and prompted thousands to move out of the city, looking for work elsewhere. They left abandoned properties in their wake and these empty buildings and unkept lots quickly began lowering the value of all Flint property. Over time, Flint began repeatedly ranking among the most dangerous cities in the United States.

By 2013, Flint’s population had been cut in half with just 99,000 remaining residents.

Today, so many people have fled Flint, the city ranks second for most “vacant houses” behind only Detroit. This is why the city’s “blight elimination plan” now calls for boarding up 4,235 vacant structures–which, get this, means boarding up 1 out of every 9 houses in Flint. They also plan to demolish 5,028 residential structures (i.e. 1 out of every 8 houses) and 432 commercial structures (1 of every 6 buildings used for business).

Some residents believe the reason public officials didn’t fix the city’s now famous contaminated water supply more quickly is because the city is in such decline. They suspect lawmakers would like to see the city dwindle down and become gentrified–slowly emptying out and being renovated to conform to middle class tastes.

But there are lots of homegrown residents who insist they aren’t going anywhere. They’re still living in Flint and working hard to raise their voices as they face a water crisis the level of which is usually reserved for headlines about developing countries.

Photo: Sarah Cunningham. Jan, 2017.

The Water Crisis

To fully understand the cause of the Flint water crisis, you have to do a bit of reading. Here are the cliff notes: A state-appointed emergency manager took over the administration of the struggling city. To save money, these appointed managers switched from the Detroit water supply which comes from Lake Huron, and began drawing their water from the Flint River. Unfortunately, through some mix of neglect, ignorance, and passing-the-buck, the Flint River water wasn’t properly treated. The result? It corroded old lead pipes all over the city, contaminating the water with poisonous levels of lead. Then the rush began to quickly treat the lead using chemicals some Flint residents say have caused a different series of water-related illnesses.

Photo: Sarah Cunningham. Jan, 2017.

Paying for Poisoned Water

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies in the Flint Water Crisis is that through much of the emergency, Flint residents were still paying the highest water bills in the country. And we’re not just talking about a few percentage points. They were paying double the national average. If they didn’t pay, they were threatened with shut offs, which some residents say can lead to the city condemning a house and reporting parents to family social services. While the city says there’s no instances of children removed over Water Crisis issues, one can see how residents might feel stuck in an impossible position. Appendix 2, Section 1 of MDHHS’ own “Mandated Reporters’ Resource Guide” lists “running water in the home” as a potential sign of neglect.


The Problem ISN’T Over

One of the most tragic and frustrating pieces for the people of Flint is that many people in the rest of America think Flint’s problems have been solved.

While others might not hear “emergency” when they learn Flint residents are living off bottled water, they probably aren’t able to fully picture the extent of what’s going on. So yes, with some extra hustle, most of us could get by on bottled water for a few days…or even a few months. But when this sort of hardship extends beyond that, it’s literally life altering.

While much of the national news spotlight has moved on from covering the daily life of Flint, a story which is–unfortunately–no longer “breaking news,” there are still reporters endeavoring to raise awareness about what daily life in Flint is like.

Take a look.

Living off bottled water.

CNN gave cameras.Spent 10 days filming what life is like with contaminated water.


As of today, 1,000+ days into this crisis, the people of Flint still travel across town to pick up water so they can safely cook and drink. This burden is increased, activists say, by their estimate that roughly 20% of residents don’t have reliable transportation. The hardship is also multiplied for residents who are elderly, sick, pregnant, or toting a long train of toddlers. These groups, of course, need water just the same (maybe more), but lugging around 26.5 pound cases of it–whether driving, walking, or taking the bus–is no easy task. Especially 1,000 days later.

Health Issues

New patterns of illness are emerging across Flint–the most extreme of which is an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. There have been 87 cases and at least 10 deaths related to Leionnaires.

But there are many other medical problems emerging that are related to heavy metal poisoning as well. Some of the most common include severe eczema like rashes, peeling skin, hair loss, anemia, memory loss, brain fog, and fatigue. On a recent visit to Flint, more than one resident told me they had unexplainably begun to have seizures.

Not to mention, along the way, the state itself issued a notice acknowledging the water contained unlawful levels of trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer and other diseases.

The claim that health issues are linked to the contaminated water supply is one supported by doctors.

Medical professionals have publicly advocated for the people of Flint, warning the long-term effects of lead exposure can’t be reversed. Instead, doctors caution that children exposed to lead will carry side effects with them for life.

As you can imagine, hearing doctors confirm their children will pay life long costs is traumatizing to Flint residents. Everyone I spoke to talked about new levels of stress, worry, and paranoia. Many voice fears about how their families have been harmed, what medical issues will befall them in the future, and how they will pay for any necessary medical treatment. (Read more about health issues here and here.)

Mothers report being riddled with guilt. Take LeeAnne Walters for example. What must it have been like for her when she learned that the maximum concentration of lead allowed by law is 15 parts per billion, yet the water at her house tested at nearly 400 parts per billion.

“I was hysterical,” Walters told Mother Jones. “At first, it was self-blame. And then there’s that anger: How are they letting them do this?”

Or consider the worries of another mother, Nicole Lewis, who told The New York Times she can’t sleep. “I’m up until midnight some nights because I can’t shut down,” she said. “Just thinking about my life in general — like really, did I deserve this? Did my kids deserve this?”

This crisis has taken its toll on both Flint’s physical, emotional, and psychological health.

Trust Issues

Residents’ fears are only compounded by a history of neglect on the part of the city and public agencies. Three times–in August and September of 2014–for instance, the city released advisories instructing residents to boil the water. But this was the exact opposite of what they should’ve done. Boiling water with lead in it actually concentrates it, making it more dangerous to drink. (Read more about that here.)

In January of 2015, the city notified residents the water contained byproducts of disinfectants known to increase one’s risk for cancer over time. But, the city said the water was safe for the general population outside of the elderly or young children. They were wrong about that too.

Then to make matters worse, in March of 2015, when the Flint City Council tried to do something about the water supply, they hit a dead end. Even though the council voted 7 to 1 to stop using the corrosive river water and reconnect to Detroit’s water supply, state-appointed emergency manager Jerry Ambrose overruled them, effectively locking them into the bad water.

By January of 2016, the EPA was criticizing the state’s slow response to the water problems. And by February, the US Attorney’s Office was investigating. Since then, State Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed 43 criminal charges against 13 current and former state and local workers. The State Attorney General also stood against Michigan Governor Rick Snyder on the issue, even though the two men were from the same party.

Federal U.S. District Judge David Lawson has now ordered the state and the City of Flint to make regular bottled-water deliveries to all Flint residents who are not proven to have properly installed and maintained water filters. In response, Gov. Snyder and the state appealed the order twice, arguing water delivery wasn’t necessary and would be too costly. They lost both appeals.

Add to this, that back in May of 16, Snyder authorized $1.2 million of taxpayer dollars to be used for civil and criminal defense attorneys to protect himself from potential lawsuits. Since then, he’s increased the funding for criminal defense lawyers to close to $5 million.

Recent Update

While some reports suggest the lead and bacteria levels in the water are finally falling, it takes consistent samples drawn over time to be sure the water is really clean. In the meantime, this is the bleak forecast the city gave Flint residents as recently as January, 2017:

  • It will take roughly 3 more years for Flint to replace lead water service lines throughout the city.

  • The money to make that happen has not been secured. (The city’s treatment plants needs well over $100 million in upgrades and won’t likely be ready to handle water from the new Karegnondi Water Authority until late-2019- early 2020.)

As you can imagine, solutions to the ongoing hardships and health issues aren’t coming fast enough for residents. You can hear some of their reactions to the January, 2017 update below.


How You Can Help

The City of Flint suggests donating to the Safe Water Safe Homes Fund, which helps Flint residents with costs of repairing their homes infrastructure; the Flint WaterWorks Fund, which aids in the delivery of clean water and other health interventions; or the Flint Childrens’ Health and Development Fundwhich will provide public health, medical, and community-based services.

For those wishing to donate water directly, here are some helpful donation guidelines. The city suggests those who wish to donate 100 or more cases of water should contact Tina Martinez, Director of Operations with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan at (810) 239-444.

Water bottles, gallon jugs, and larger containers of water (100 cases or less) can be dropped off at:

Weekdays at Catholic Charities Center for Hope, 517 E. Fifth Ave., Flint
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday

Weekends at Red Cross, 1401 Grand Traverse, Flint
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

For 100 cases or more or pallets of water:
Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, 2300 Lapeer Road, Flint
8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday

The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan is also working to distribute water, as well as lead-mitigating foods. You can earmark a donation for Flint Water Relief using their pull down menu here.

You may also consider donating to these organizations who are working to address short-term and long-term needs of the city:

Community Foundation of Greater Flint

Genesee United Way

American Red Cross