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Obama's visit brings spotlight on Flint's continuing water problems

May 4, 2016

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Today President Obama heads to Flint, Michigan to meet with residents still dealing with the water crisis.

He’s set to meet with residents, participate in a briefing with state and local officials and make remarks at Northwestern High School.

While his visit will last just a few hours, there’s hope the presidential spotlight could shine on Flint water solutions.

Though lead levels are improving in Flint’s municipal water, that water is still not safe to drink, unless it’s run through a filter.

But, for a number of reasons, some residents still only drink and cook with bottled water. Others won’t even bathe in tap water, even though that’s considered safe. You must remember, people in Flint have been dealing with nasty smelling, rusty-colored water for a long time.

Lots of residents, like Amber Hasan, complained of skin rashes.

You must remember, people in Flint have been dealing with nasty smelling, rusty-colored water for a long time.

“I’ve been in the shower and had my eyes burning, my eyes are burning in the shower and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, like, what’s going on?’ I get out the shower and I can’t see for a minute because my eyes are burning from whatever,” Hasan told Michigan Radio last fall.

But state officials repeatedly assured residents that Flint’s water was fine. They did that for more than a year when it wasn’t.

Darnell Earley was Flint’s emergency manager when the city switched drinking water sources in 2014 to save money. 

“What we have to do is respond to that, find a way to fix it, make it better and move on,” Earley said in June 2014, weeks after the switch to the Flint River.

But things did not get better.

Soon the city detected E. coli bacteria in the water. Then there were high levels of a disinfectant by-product. All the while, behind the scenes, health officials were alarmed about a spike in Legionnaires’ Disease.

It wasn’t until January 2016 that the public learned, from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, that 10 people had died from the respiratory disease. That number was later revised to 12 deaths. The disease is caused by Legionella, a type of bacteria that loves warm stagnant water.

“That just adds to the disaster we’re already facing with respect to elevated lead levels,” Snyder said at the time.

The number of Flint kids with elevated lead levels has doubled. In some neighborhoods, tripled.

The number of Flint kids with elevated lead levels has doubled. In some neighborhoods, tripled.

Governor Snyder has repeatedly apologized to Flint residents for the state’s role in the crisis.

“I understand their anger. I’ve been humbled by this experience,” Snyder told a congressional oversight committee last March. He said he didn’t know until last fall just how bad Flint’s water was.

But many in Congress, like Rep. Matt Cartwright, weren't buying it.

“You were not in a medically induced coma for a year. And I have had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies,” he said.

Since those hearings, criminal charges have been filed against three officials, including two of Michigan’s environmental regulators, state bureaucrats who Snyder blames for not treating the water properly.

Michigan taxpayers are also paying for lawyers for the governor, though he hasn’t been charged.

But the state attorney general says more charges are coming and a separate, federal investigation is going on too. 

In downtown Flint, De’Shawn Hussey and his buddy, Darnel Holliday are walking to the bus station. They say they’re excited Obama is coming today. Though, they wish he’d been here sooner.

“I understand when you’re president, you got a lot of stuff on your plate. So you can’t just get to everything immediately. It’s better late than never,” Holliday said, “But at the same time, like I said earlier, he can come, but what is the difference going to be after he comes?”

Like many people here, Hussey and Holliday have heard a lot of talk from politicians, experts, even movie stars who parachute in and talk about what needs to be done to fix Flint’s water problems.

They say Flint needs much less talk and much more money.

Specifically, Flint needs money to replace thousands of old lead and galvanized water pipes damaged by improperly treated water.

The Republican-controlled state Legislature and the U.S. Senate haven’t moved as quickly on bills to help Flint as residents had hoped. So far, fewer than two dozen lead water lines have been replaced in Flint.

“I just wanna know is there anything going to be done about that? Like, is our water ever going to back the same?” Hussey asked.

Yes, there is free water available in Flint. Yes, Medicaid has expanded to help Flint’s most vulnerable populations. Yes, there’s a new focus on helping kids with lead exposure.

But the big question on the minds of many here is "When is my tap water going to be normal again?" And no one, not even the president, can answer that.