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Three years after man-made disaster, Flint filter teams try to keep residents safe

Apr 25, 2017

Three years ago today, Flint switched the source of its drinking water, and triggered a public health crisis.

Today, many residents are still drinking bottled water. And teams go door to door, installing and inspecting water filters in residents’ homes.

It’s unseasonably warm and sunny for spring in Michigan when I meet Aaron Gates. He’s still sporting his uniform though; thick, black waterproof overalls and a neon green work vest. He’s working up a sweat before we get to the first house.

“It’s protective,” Gates said when I ask if he’s too hot.

“I am warm, but a dog ain’t going to penetrate this. I’m ready,” he said, slapping his pants.

Dogs can be a hazard in Gates' job.

“We had a pit bull actually bust through the door. He looked at me and went after my partner. He threw his hands up and just didn’t move. The thing is don’t run,” Gates advises.

Chameil Howard is Gates’ partner today. They’re one of about 80 CORE teams. CORE stands for Community Outreach and Education.

CORE team members organize faucet filters in the back of the van before heading out.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

All of the CORE team members are Flint residents and they were looking for work. Now they’re making between $12 and $15 an hour.

Howard says the occasional dog won’t scare her away from a good paying job, especially as a single parent of five kids.

Gates points out a bright yellow house with a "for sale" sign in front. Howard likes the brick chimney.

“We all got families. We got us some income now where we can provide a house in a nice neighborhood for kids to grow up in versus before when minimum wage wasn’t enough,” Howard said.

“You see a lot of us looking at houses, house hunting, fitting get ready to move our kids to better neighborhoods,” she said with a smile.

“I just wish we could get us some better water,” she added.

At least 18,000 corroded water pipes are getting ripped out of the ground and replaced. That’s part of the long-term fix. But it’s going to take at least three more years to finish the job.

All the construction work can disturb other water pipes nearby, causing lead levels to spike.

The faucet filters CORE teams have for resident are certified to remove lead, but many in Flint say they prefer bottled water. Free water distribution is set to end by this fall.

So even though they’re temporary, getting faucet filters installed inside every Flint home is paramount.

It’s a daunting task, and not just because of the sheer volume of homes.

CORE team members Chameil Howard and Aaron Gates.
Credit Lindsey Smith

Karry Pitkin, who drives the team’s van, keeps a close eye on her co-workers; slowly following them as they walk the streets.

Once, she says she watched a guy pull in his driveway just as one of her teams was knocking on his door.

“They got those bright green vests on. You know that they’re not there to do something to you,” Pitkin said.

“Well the guy got out of the car with the gun pulled on them. Said, ‘You know you’re in the hood. What are you doing on my property?’ They said, 'We’re here for the water response’ and of course he wanted a filter. I would’ve told him, ‘Hell no, son of a gun, you just pulled a gun on me. You ain’t getting shit.’ Hasta la vista.”

We did have a dog scare later that afternoon. Nothing major – but it did send us all scrambling for Pitkin’s van. But no guns, and no one was hurt. I must insist here, the vast majority of the time, the work these CORE teams do isn’t very dramatic.

It’s a lot of walking and a lot of patience. For some teams designated to do follow-up visits, it’s a lot of listening and problem solving.

Aaron Gates and Chameil Howard knock on doors in Flint, trying to make sure residents have working water filters.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Last month CORE teams knocked on 44,521 doors. They were able to “complete” outreach to more than 15,000 households. They circle back to those they missed.

The afternoon I tag along with Aaron Gates and Chameil Howard, they knock on doors for more than 45 minutes before they find someone home and willing to answer. Even then, some people say they already have a filter, thanks, and they don’t care to have a stranger come into their kitchen or bathroom unannounced to make sure it works.

While the filters are designed to be user friendly, all the CORE teams I tagged along with found problems once they get into people’s homes.

“Once we’re in here we turn the water on and check and see, it’s red, flashing red,” Gates says at a home on Flint’s east side.

Gates doesn’t know how long that red light has been flashing. Neither does the homeowner.

He’s satisfied when he replaces the cartridge and the light flashes green.

In other CORE visits, the teams find the filters won’t fit on certain kinds of faucets. They offer to order residents a whole new faucet fixture, on the state’s dime, just so the filter will fit.

Temporary fix or not, these teams and faucet filters are likely going to be the way of life in Flint for some time to come.