Less than 90 miles west of southern Lake Huron is Michigan’s seventh largest city, Flint, about 70 miles northwest of Detroit. A diverse city with a complicated history, Flint is home to more than 100,000 men, women and children, about 40 percent of whom are living below the poverty line. Many Flintstones, a playful self-embraced demonym for Flint’s residents, continue to struggle due to the decades-long deindustrialization following the automotive industry’s crash. General Motors was founded in Flint — and the city’s economy relied on it for the better part of the 20th century.
Flint has since been continuously combatting climbing crime rates, crippling debt and unemployment; but the sense of community remains strong. Residents continue to work hard in hopes of rebuilding the area, demonstrated by dozens of family-owned businesses, organizations and farmers markets downtown.
The city is home to the historic Capitol Theatre, built in 1928, which is in the process of being redeveloped and reopened to the public thanks to a local non-profit reinvestment group. The area continues to be a hub for local artists and young people.
A 78-mile river, The Flint, amply named, runs northeast directly through the city. The Flint River, a long-time recipient of nearby industrial runoff and dumping, is notoriously known to some as the “filthy Flint,” as well as a variety of other tongue-in-cheek nicknames. Flint River water is known to contain extremely high levels of chlorides, making it 19 times more corrosive to lead pipes than the Huron River, where most of Southeast Michigan gets its water.
“We steer clear of the river, and always have,” Damon Brown, 49, of Flint, says. “My kids don’t swim in it or play near it. In a city like this where there’s so little oversight, you have to be aware of the potential dangers.”
In 2014, when the city announced plans to save money by cutting off treated water from Lake Huron and switching to Flint River water, Brown was flabbergasted. After litigation challenges during a difficult budget crisis for both the city and the State of Michigan, residents began to see their water darken, almost overnight.
“My daughter comes out into the living room after taking a bath before bed and says, ‘The water looks dirty,’” Brown says. “So I called a few neighbors who said their water looked fine, so I kind of dismissed it until it became clear there was something more going on.”
Soon, residents began visiting nearby medical centers in droves, citing abdominal pain, headaches and in some cases, seizures. Schools began to see more behavioral problems in their students as well.
“My little girl began vomiting one night,” Brown says. “So I took her to the ER, only to have them tell me they’ve had a few kids come in lately and they think some kind of bug is going around.”
As it turns out, that “bug” was months of systemic lead poisoning from Flint’s drinking water. A research project by Virginia Tech researchers last summer found some samples contained lead levels high enough to meet the EPA’s definition of “toxic waste.”
In children, lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, brain damage, behavioral issues and decreased muscle and bone growth, according to Kenneth Claiborne, a practicing pediatrician in Royal Oak, Michigan.
“The fact that these children were exposed to lead at all, not the least bit over the course of years, is highly disturbing,” he says. “What’s worse is they still don’t have access to clean water.”
In 2010, 34.3% of households included children under the age of 18, according to U.S. census data. It is estimated between 6,000 and 12,000 children have sustained injuries as a result of the crisis. While local politicians are playing the blame game, justifiably trying to hold those responsible accountable, including Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, and local emergency managers, Flintstones are in need of more immediate relief.
President Obama declared a state of emergency last month, promising $80 million in federal aid to build the river’s infrastructure, but the trickle down effect is taking much longer than is defensible, according to Alysia Harris, 34, of Flint.
“There’s a lot of political talk and talk about racial inequality. (Flint is majority African American.) But at the end of the day we need water, now. I have a toddler who is staying with her grandmother in another county so she’s not exposed to unnecessary poison. I want my kid back,” Harris says.
It’s estimated that residents could be waiting months to access clean, safe drinking water in their homes and community.
“Some of the politicians are telling us two months before it gets sorted out because there’s so much confusion, but I’d be surprised if it’s that quick,” Harris said.
Darren Willis, a local volunteer with the Prince of Peace Baptist Church, says members have distributed more than 10,000 bottles of water alone in recent months.
“There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight,” he says. “We’ll keep giving out water four hours a day as long as it’s needed.”
For those who don’t live within driving distance of Flint, there are several options to help provide immediate relief to those in need:
The United Way of Genesee County has set up emergency support services for Flint. “The UWGC has sourced more than 11,000 filters systems and 5,000 replacement filters, ongoing sources of bottled water to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan and also supports a dedicated driver for daily distribution,” according to its website.
Flint Community Schools: Call the district’s finance office at 810-767-6030 about cash donations, so that students can continue to learn safely.
Catholic Charities of Genesee County: For information on making cash or bottled water donations to aid soup kitchens and warming centers, call 810-785-6911.