Untold Stories from the Heart of the Suffering
It's no secret that the city of Flint, Michigan is suffering. The stories of Flint's contaminated water have been shared on local and national media outlets, captured the attention of celebrities like Aretha Franklin and Jimmy Fallon, and even landed on the cover of Time Magazine. With the people of Flint in the global spotlight, you would think that the truth would emerge and the city's needs would be crystal clear. On my recent trip to Flint (February 4, 2016) however, I could see that politics, mis-informed leaders, and lack of time spent on the ground have caused mass confusion and buried the truth, leaving many important stories untold. My goal in this article is to bring a few of those stories to light and dispel some myths about the Flint Water Crisis.
There is still a massive water shortage
At the heart of the issue, the biggest questions from most are "What do they need?" and "How can I help?". Upon arriving in Flint, the first thing that I learned from area pastors is that there is still a massive water shortage. Prior to my trip, I heard announcements from community leaders and news stories reassuring their audience that the city of Flint had water in abundance and no longer needed donations. The harsh reality was that at each stop I toured, there were usually only a few pallets on-site, with leaders hoping and praying that another truck would soon be on the way. Recently, when unloading a semi of water bottles into a local storage facility, area volunteers found that the water disappeared before they could unload it. As news spread of the truck's arrival, area residents flocked to the site and began loading their cars. The desperation for water could not be more apparent.
Water is being rationed and not reaching some neighborhoods
If you want to receive water in Flint, you will need transportation to a local distribution site (usually a fire station or church) and a piece of government issued identification. While this may seem like a good way to regulate water distribution, it creates several limitations. With many Flint residents living in poverty, daily access to reliable transportation for water pickup is a major barrier. Those without government I.D., like children, the elderly, and undocumented citizens are dependent on someone else getting water for them. In any case, if an I.D. is not presented, no water will be given (by the Red Cross, United Way, etc.). Area churches are working together to help provide water to these underserved people that continually fall in the gap.
Pastors and residents in Flint share that despite massive donations by celebrities' (Puff Daddy and Mark Wahlberg donated 1,000,000 bottles of water on their own) aid isn't reaching the poorest neighborhoods. "Where is all this donated water going?" said Pastor Robert McCathern of Joy Tabernacle, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods. "We aren't seeing it here. The National Guard will not enter some neighborhoods so we have to figure out how to get water to these people." Residents that do receive water are limited to one case per person, per day. Keep in mind that it takes approximately 150 bottles of water for one person to bathe. As a result, many residents are simply not bathing because there is not enough water left after cooking and hydrating themselves and their families.
Residents are receiving mixed messages or missing the warning entirely
One story that was repeated many times during my trip was the mixed messages that Flint residents have heard from local and state leaders. First, leaders said that water was safe (even though it was discolored), then boiling the water was recommended until it was revealed that boiling significantly intensifies the toxic effects of lead. The next directive was to use water filters which made no sense since the supplied filters weren't designed to filter lead. New filters that were provided failed as they were created to filter out a maximum 30 units of lead. The poisoned water in Flint contains 300 units of lead in some areas, rendering the filters useless. Residents who installed a filter (sometimes with tape on old, outdated faucets) believed that their water was finally safe, only to find out later that they were continuing to ingest poisoned water with multiple toxins.
As you can imagine, the city of Flint has issued multiple warnings to residents. Why aren't they getting the message? Remember that Flint is a multi-cultural area stricken with poverty. While this is not the case everywhere, many who call Flint home do not have access to television, the internet, or regular transportation. Warnings issued via media, even local billboards, have not been seen by some who continue to use the water. Locals struggled to decipher the warning dispersed via mail. The complicated language (or "legal-speak") might well have been written in a foreign language as many neighborhoods only have a third grade reading level. For some residents, it was a foreign language entirely, as they don't speak English.
Another common issue has been the wording that has been used. "Don't drink the water" and "The water is toxic. Do not use it for anything" have two different meanings. Flint must find a way to clearly communicate the message that the water should not be used for anything to every resident.
Fear and distrust are on the rise
In addition to not trusting the government after several messages that the toxic water was safe, a Facebook video that has surfaced and is causing great alarm. The video shows a woman testing water allegedly provided by an aid organization with her lead test kit. According to sources in Flint, the test kit displays a positive reaction for lead in the bottled water.
One of the greatest issues of injustice that defies all logic is the fact that Flint residents are still being charged large water bills even though the water is poisoned and cannot be used for drinking, bathing, cooking, washing clothes, or watering. Brown water has been seen coming from hospital sinks while patients are having surgery. Adding to the fear and pandemonium, residents were surprised to see military drills taking place in downtown Flint. Tanks, military choppers, and armed troops appeared un-announced and were spotted training downtown in the middle of the water crisis. These training exercises or demonstrations have heightened the level of distrust and raised hostility.
Lead toxins are just the beginning
Lead-laden water is not the only problem. Water near Joy Tabernacle has tested positive for fecal matter. "No one really knows what's in the water. " says Pastor McCathern, adding that residents don't even trust the test kits after repeatedly being told that toxic water is safe. "Some people believe that the government is really trying to kill us off."
Legionella bacteria, which can live in water and travel through the air, is reportedly becoming common in Flint. On our last stop of the day, our entire team felt sick after leaving a local meeting site, who's heat was provided by a boiler system connected to Flint water. In addition to everyone on the trip complaining of a headache, one member suffered from nausea and felt feverish for hours after the visit. Keep in mind that we were only exposed to the air at this site for about two hours.
All of the local leaders that attended our lunch meeting that have consumed Flint water reported symptoms ranging from memory loss and hot sweats to hearing loss. A 30-year-old resident was told to purchase a hearing aid by her doctor, after water exposure. She is currently deaf in one ear. Nikeda, a 27-year-old man in good physical condition was recently diagnosed with pericarditis, a condition that causes inflammation of the heart after a recent visit to the hospital. "My heart is irregular. It's only beating at 50 percent. It causes my body to shut down at times" said Nikeda, adding that he recently collapsed at a church function due to the condition. "When you go to the hospital they just give you a shot of morphine and send you home." added Cassadra, a volunteer who has lost half of the hearing in her left ear.
The city of Flint is already telling local schools to prepare for the influx of special needs children as a result of the water crisis. Schools will need specialized training to work with potentially thousands of children suffering from physical and mental disabilities from the poisoned water. In addition, a link has been made between lead exposure and aggressive behavior. Local leaders believe that detention centers and jails may need to expand to meet the incoming population which will be charged with violent crimes.
A great American tragedy
Our visit ended with a tender moment as Pastor McCathern reflected on the impact of the water crisis through tear-filled eyes. "I have volunteered as a Pastor in the community for 15 years. Now, I sit back and think, did we just mess up a whole people? The answer is yes. They said every baby who is consuming the water is going to have problems."
There is no doubt that it will take years to rebuild after the Flint Water Crisis and the city of Flint may never fully recover from the devastating effects that this great American tragedy has had on its people.
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