FLINT, Mich. — Standing before a crowd of more than 1,000 residents at Flint Northwestern High School on Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama reaffirmed federal support for the Flint community in the ongoing water crisis and eased mounting tensions surrounding the health of the city’s children and the safety of its drinking water.
The president’s visit came in response to a letter written by 8-year-old Flint resident Mari Copeny, also known as “Little Miss Flint,” for her work raising awareness of her community’s plight. Copeny requested to meet Obama while she was visiting Washington D.C. to attend a congressional hearing on the water crisis in April. Obama instead answered her letter by announcing last week that he would travel to Flint to meet with city residents and local and state leaders.
The Flint water crisis began in April 2015 following the city's cost-saving switch from Detroit city water to Flint River water. The water from the Flint River had a corrosive quality, which resulted in lead erosion in the city's pipe system, tainting its water supply. In the weeks and months following the switch, residents reported adverse health effects, but their complaints were largely ignored by local officials until Oct. 2015, when the water was finally switched back. Despite the switch, traces of lead remains in the water due to the Flint's already corroded pipes.
In his remarks, Obama said the people of Flint have a right to be angry, blaming the water crisis on poor decisions and neglect from state and local officials.
“Even though the scope of response looks sort of like what we’re used to seeing after a natural disaster, that’s not what this was,” Obama said. “This was a man-made disaster. This was avoidable. This was preventable."
Obama also implicitly rebuked Governor Rick Snyder's (R) administration, saying the crisis represents a systematic problem in which efforts to shrink government undermine essential environmental protection and municipal services.
“It’s a mindset that says environmental rules designed to keep your water clean or your air clean are optional, or not that important, or, unnecessarily, burden businesses or taxpayers,” Obama said, charging that this small-government ideology undercuts the common good in favor of personal gain.
“And this kind of thinking — this myth that government is always the enemy; that forgets that our government is us — it’s us,” Obama said. “That attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in lead in your water.”
Obama then stressed the residents of Flint are being heard, reassuring them the American people as a whole are paying attention to the city.
“I want all of you to know I am confident that Flint will come back,” he said. “I will not rest, and I’m going to make sure that the leaders, at every level of the government, don’t rest until every drop of water that flows to your homes is safe to drink and safe to cook with and safe to bathe in — because that’s part of the basic responsibilities of a government in the United States of America.”
Rep. Dan Kildee (D–Flint), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver spoke before Obama gave his remarks. All three expressed their gratitude for Obama’s work to help the citizens of Flint and his decision to visit and learn more about the crisis but acknowledged there is more to be done.
Weaver said while many positive steps have been taken to make the water better and safer, major health concerns still exist in Flint.
“I hope after the president’s visit here today everyone will see the priority of helping to fix Flint,” she said. “It has to be a priority: fixing Flint. We are moving in the right direction on the road to recovery, and we all know that Flintstones are resilient. We didn’t deserve what happened here, but we do deserve the resources to fix it.”
On Jan. 16, President Obama declared a state of emergency for the state of Michigan, ordering federal aid to fund state and local emergency response efforts to aid the Flint community. This followed a massive increase in national media spotlight on the crisis after Hillary Clinton mentioned the issue in a Democratic debate in January.
Obama has taken additional measures in response to the water crisis in his expansion of funding for Medicaid, Head Start — a federal government organization that prepares children from low socioeconomic backgrounds for school — and local Health and Human Services centers, in addition to water testing by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the White House.
Prior to Obama’s remarks, Snyder also addressed the crowd, facing a vociferously negative response. Snyder apologized for the crisis and promised to work to resolve it, recieving boos from a majority of the crowdmembers.
“Let me begin by saying I understand why you’re angry and frustrated,” he said. “I wanted to come here today to apologize … I want to work hard to fix that.”
Citing criminal negligence of government officials in response to the crisis, several groups of protesters have called for the resignation of Snyder over the past six months. Both Secretary Clinton and her rival in the Democratic nomination Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–Vt.) have also called for Snyder’s resignation. On April 20, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged three Flint officials in relation to the crisis, excluding Snyder.
Protesters with the Flint Lives Matter movement gathered across the street from Flint Northwestern High School hours before his arrival, calling for an increased federal response to the crisis.
Flint resident Gary Byas, who participated in the protest, said he wants the government to provide funds to replace all of Flint's lead pipelines.
“We want to get clean water, to get water rates lowered, to make sure they are putting in new pipes instead of trying to coat them,” he said. “We have rusty pipes — why are you trying to coat them? When they are rusted out from the inside out, it’s not doing much good. We need replacement of the pipes, and that’s why I’m out here — to get the right amount of money to replace all the pipes.”
During his time in Flint Wednesday, Obama additionally met with community members, local and state leaders — including Snyder and Weaver — and federal officials handling the response to the water crisis.
In response to community fears and skepticism of the safety of filtered water, Obama assured residents that the filtered water is safe to drink for all people who are above the age of six, excluding those who are pregnant. To emphasize his point, Obama drank a glass of filtered Flint water both durin his meeting with community leaders and in the middle of his remarks.
“So although I understand the fear and concern that people have, and it is entirely legitimate, what the science tells us at this stage is you should not drink any of the water that is not filtered,” he said. “But if you get the filter and use it properly, that water can be consumed.”
Obama noted that, like many other manufacturing cities in the U.S., Flint’s economy has been contracting for decades, making it more difficult for the city to maintain public services under the pressure of a shrinking tax base and staff.
Obama's optimistic tone contrasted with those of previous Democratic Party figures who recently visited Flint and took a harder rhetorical line in response to the crisis— in particular against the Snyder administration. Obama encouraged residents to not fear that their children will suffer from long-term health effects, assuring that as long as affected children receive proper healtchare, they will still prosper, citing the fact that, prior the 1980s, society was unaware of the dangers of lead and commonly used lead to produce paints and childrens' toys. He concluded that many members of his own generation must have, at some point, consumed lead without overwhelming longterm health consequences.
“So I say all this just to indicate you should be angry, but channel that anger,” Obama said. “You should be hurt, but don't sink into despair. And most of all, do not somehow communicate to our children here in this city that they're going to be saddled with problems for the rest of their lives. Because they will not.”