As national media attention and state and federal declarations of emergency over Flint’s water crisis draw eyes to the city’s community, residents are tasked with continuing to live within the city’s bounds, feeling the crisis’ effects.
On a Friday afternoon, Saginaw Street — the city’s main drag — is quiet, with several residents walking into the restaurants and shops that have survived the economic hardships that have plagued the area since the closing of a nearby General Motors plant almost seventeen years ago.
On the University of Michigan-Flint campus, a few students linger in the Harding Mott University Center watching T.V. on communal screens, eating or paging through thick textbooks.
Signs around campus tell students the water is OK and safe for them to drink. Students rely on state-issued purifiers on each faucet and drinking fountain to protect them from any possible lead in the city’s water supply while on campus.
Cody Worswick, a sophomore computer science major from Marysville, Michigan considers himself fortunate. Before enrolling at the University’s Flint campus, his mother was aware of the dangerous water quality within the city’s limits, he said, and bought him a filter, which he uses for all of his drinking water.
Worswick said he doesn’t trust free filters provided to the community by the government.
“I don’t feel like the (government-issued) filters are even adequate, because I don’t know how well they filter out the lead,” he said. “I just know that my filter filters out the lead, and I don’t trust theirs.’”
At his home, Worswick still gets Flint city water, which he noted comes with challenges that can’t be solved just by filtering all drinking water.
“I don’t like the fact that I have to shower in lead water, but it’s whatever. I have to live with it,” he said.
Christopher Miller, a freshman physics and math major, is shoveling snow off a bench on campus. He works for UM-Flint part time.
Miller is one of three people on his street who have well water — but many members of his family are not as fortunate, he said. His friends come to his house regularly to take showers.
Miller said the unfolding magnitude of the water crisis is still unimaginable.
“It was just sort of surreal for a while just because they had been talking about it for a long time — how there was something in their water — and it just wasn’t right,” he said. “My sister is dealing with it, and she was just starting to notice hair falling off — her skin would be really red when she got out of the shower for whatever reason and she didn’t know (why),” Miller said.
He added that any trust between Flint residents and their local and state governments that once existed has disappeared.
“At first it was like, ‘There’s no way the city of Flint is just going to allow the poisoning of 90,000 residents — no, they totally did,” Miller said. “It just helps to further cement the dichotomy — the line of trust that is just never gonna come back in terms of citizens and their government. It’s never gonna come back.”
Miller said he is further angered by the fact that national media, not the months of Flint residents’ complains, sparked governmental attention to the water crisis.
“It was going on for a solid year and a half before the rest of the world picked up,” Miller said. “There’s a city of 100,000 people being poisoned and no one seems to care just because they have shoddy infrastructure.”
Larry Tucker, a Flint resident who regularly uses UM-Flint campus recreational facilities, on Friday said he believes the government must take immediate action. He’s not alone in these sentiments by far — some state residents have called for more transparency from Gov. Rick Snyder (R) while others call for his arrest.
Tucker added that the crisis has deeply impacted his level of trust in the government.
“I don’t trust whoever I’m drinking water from — no way,” he said. “Just because they put up a sign there that says ‘filtered’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s filtered because the government is always going to cover themselves.”
She said the water crisis has been particularly difficult for her to deal with due to her severe eczema, a condition that inflames the skin.
She noticed her skin turning extremely dry after showers directly after the city switched from using Lake Huron’s water to the Flint water supply. She suffers from regular itching spells and takes Benadryl on a nightly basis to alleviate the irritation.
Before government agencies and local charities began providing free bottled water to Flint residents, Marshall said she paid seven or eight dollars for cases of water, a costly expense. And though she has been buying bottled water, she continues to bathe in the tap water.
“I have no choice but to take a shower. It kind of makes you feel helpless because I can’t help but to take a shower — I can’t help but to cook in the water and I heard somewhere that they could’ve fixed it a long time ago so it would’ve been better if they just fixed it and treated it right in the beginning so people wouldn’t have to go through this,” Marshall said.
She said she is additionally troubled with the fact that government officials now face million-dollar projects to fix and replace the pipe system, whereas it would have initially cost $35,000.
Though she said she is appreciative of national and local efforts to provide water and filters, she worries about those who don’t have cars and therefore access to pick up bottled water.
Damario Mason works with Sodexo catering on UM-Flint’s campus. He said his aunts and cousins have experienced symptoms of lead poisoning, and his family recently decided to leave Flint.
“They’re losing hair. They’re getting rashes and it’s just not livable anymore so they just decided to leave,” Mason said. “I saw my little cousin the other day and she had a huge rash on her arm, and I knew she wouldn’t normally get that just from regular water.”
Pettway said she only drinks tap water on UM-Flint’s campus thanks to a notification from University officials that it’s safe, and accompanying water filters.
She added that she was disturbed by a lack of governmental accountability surrounding the water crisis.
“They just wanted to live their lives, but people are getting sick and people are dying and people are sad and they don’t know what to do because this is Flint,” she said. “Flint is not the richest city. Flint is very poor, and so they don’t have the money to go out and move — they don’t have that money. They don’t have those resources, so they have no choice but to sit in Flint and use water bottled water for everything.”
She said she is further frustrated by the significant attention the public is putting on water drives and bottled water donations over long-term projects to replace and fix toxic pipes.
“The pipes have to get fixed. So all the money that we’re using to buy bottled water and send bottled water to Flint — you can be using that to put it towards pipes,” Pettway said. “Bottled water is only going to go so far.”
Her hope, she continued, was that government officials would start focusing on the problem at hand, not money or reputation.
“If we can figure out a way to get bigwigs to really stop thinking about money and who’s gonna like them after this is all over because it really doesn’t matter,” she said. “Who likes you? People aren’t going to like you for the rest of your life just because you make big decisions. So you might as well make a decision that’s gonna help impact a whole city instead of just yourself.”
Raymond Blake, a volunteer at the Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties, loads bottled water into vehicles as they passed by in the parking lot of the Catholic Charities Center for Hope Friday. He is joined by GM employees who partnered with Catholic Charities for the day.
Blake said the extremely high water bills Flint residents pay upset him.
“Our water rates are higher than anyone in the nation, and it’s been that way for the last two years and they’ve known about it since 2014,” Blake said.
The Catholic Charities Center for Hope, the headquarters of Catholic Charities, currently operates out of the abandoned Saint Michael’s High School in downtown Flint. The organization is a health and human services agency offering programs such as foster care and adoption, substance abuse recovery, suicide survivor assistance programs and anger management classes. At the Center for Hope, rooms filled with clothing and personal care items, washers and dryers and cases of water to be donated line the walls of what were once classrooms.
Mary Stevenson, director of the Center for Hope, said the water crisis has greatly impacted Catholic Charities in the form of a massive influx of organizations, from the U.S. Naval Academy to the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy, reaching out and donating resources and labor. Her organization has been providing water donations to citizens for roughly a year, though she said recent national attention to the water crisis has caused them to boom. Her phone rings several times with donation inquiries as she discusses Catholic Charities’ ongoing efforts.
“Everybody’s stepping up to help. That part of it is a lovely thing to see,” Stevenson said.
She added that the current media attention not only draws people to the city, but also provides them with the opportunity to learn about other issues within the Flint community beyond the water crisis.
“For people to not just think about the water, but think about the other things that are going on here in Flint and see what other ways they can help. That’s been phenomenal,” Stevenson said.
Redonna Riggs, a Flint resident and Catholic Charities volunteer, said the current crisis makes her worry about the long-term health of her grandchildren.
“Their lead levels are very high, so I’m very upset about it,” she said. “I think it could have been avoided. I think somebody needs to be held accountable.”
She added that water donations greatly benefit her family due to the fact that they don’t have access to people’s homes with clean, filtered water or well water.
“A lot of us can’t afford to go nowhere else,” she said. “We can’t go to friends’ houses and shower. Thank God for donations, but it’s hard. It’s an everyday struggle. You can turn on your faucet but you can’t use it. We developed rashes and dry skin. My hair fell out and broke off a little. I’m just more concerned with my grandbabies coming up with this. It seems like it’s going to be an ongoing thing, so that really scares me.”
Riggs said her frustration stemmed from the government’s knowledge about the crisis, and then their subsequent inaction.
“They already knew and they still let us drink this water, let our kids drink this water, let it go through the schools. So I’m very angry,” Riggs said.
She added that she currently pays $160 a month for her water, which they can’t bathe in or drink.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s like a third-world country,” she said.