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Flint's water crisis entering a new phase

Jan 13, 2016

Michigan National Guardsmen are in Flint today.

They’re there to pass out bottled water and filters to residents. That’s because for more than a year, the city’s tap water has been unsafe to drink.      

Numerous missteps by government agencies allowed the city’s water to become contaminated with lead, and many residents say they no longer trust the governor to fix the problem.

Tuesday afternoon, about a dozen children were sitting at a table in their school gymnasium piecing together snowflakes in an arts and crafts project.  

It was Family Fun Day at Freeman Elementary School in Flint. But it seems only in Flint would a Family Fun Day include blood lead testing for the children.

Two-year-old Katlynn Robyn stares at the nurses who just poked her finger with a needle. The blood collected will be tested for lead.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

“Alright sweetie, a little poke,” a nurse comforts a little girl with a pacifier in her mouth as she presses a small needle into the child’s finger. The girl doesn’t flinch. “Good job. What a big girl you are today.”

Two-year-old Katlynn is staring at the nurse drawing blood from her finger as her mother Holly Versailles holds her tight.  

This test may help determine if Katlynn is one of the many children here with high lead levels because of the city’s drinking water.

The water crisis is a big reason why Holly Versailles doesn’t want to raise her daughter in Flint.

Volunteers, shadowed by Michigan state police troopers and Genesee County sheriff's deputies, are going door to door offering residents water filters, lead testing kits and cases of bottled water
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

“Obviously it’s not a good spot to be,” Versailles says as she holds her daughter, “especially if you could get, I guess you would call it 'poisoned' by somebody who obviously didn’t care.”

Last week, Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint because of the high lead levels.   

The problem started nearly two years ago when, in a bid to save money, the city’s state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint’s water from the Detroit water system. Instead, it began drawing from the Flint River.  

But the city failed to properly treat the corrosive river water, which damaged Flint’s old pipes. The lead from the damaged pipes leached into the drinking water. 

Now it’s so contaminated, health officials say it’s not safe to drink without a special filter.

“I’m glad the state is putting in resources and we welcome the Michigan National Guard with open arms. However, we also need federal assistance as we continue to cope with this man- made water disaster,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said in a written statement today. Weaver appeared at a news conference with Gov. Snyder (right) earlier this week.Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan RadioEdit | Remove

The response to the crisis has been slowed by state and local officials blaming each other.   

Eventually, the state and city started offering free bottled water and filters at fire stations, churches and other locations around the city.     

But thousands of residents here continue to drink the tainted tap water.

So now, six months after alarms about lead in the water were first raised, there’s a new effort to reach those who continue to drink unfiltered water.

With a fresh blanket of snow on the ground and wind chills in the single digits, a caravan of state police cruisers and U-Haul trucks rolled into a north side neighborhood Tuesday.

Volunteers quickly fanned out, knocking on doors and offering lead testing kits, water filters and cases of bottled water.    

But the sight of state police cars rolling into his neighborhood had an unintended effect on some of Ray Jamieson’s neighbors.

“They need to put a sign up so people won’t think to run,” Jamieson told reporters in the doorway of his home, “My neighbor’s running. They see the state, boys think something happen and they leave.”

Sixty-seven-year-old Michael Hill did answer his door. He says health problems stopped him from getting a water filter before now.

And while others complain about the slow government response, Hill does not.

“Things just happen,” Hill said. “They’re doing the best they can and I appreciate it.”

But in this city of more than 30,000 households, the door-to-door campaign is only expected to reach about 700 homes a day.

Critics say the state’s response, in particular the governor’s handling of the crisis, has been inadequate at best, criminal at worst. 

In Flint this week, Governor Snyder again apologized for mistakes by the state that led to Flint’s current water crisis.

“Let’s focus in on how we get safe drinking water in Flint,” Snyder told reporters Monday. “Both short-term and long-term.”

Flint’s mayor estimates the cost of fixing the city’s water infrastructure at more than $1 billion. There’s no estimate on the cost of the long-term health effects on Flint residents who drank lead-tainted water for more than a year.