The VICE Channels

      Flint residents worry as federal government steps away from water crisis

      Flint residents worry as federal government steps away from water crisis Flint residents worry as federal government steps away from water crisis Flint residents worry as federal government steps away from water crisis
      Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

      Health

      Flint residents worry as federal government steps away from water crisis

      By Kayla Ruble

      On Sunday, the city of Flint passes a milestone: the federal government, which has been administering water relief for the past eight months, is pulling out, and state and local officials will take over providing water to residents.

      It means that local agencies — the same ones that repeatedly told residents their lead-contaminated water was safe — will once again be in charge of distributing bottled water, filters, and testing kits to 100,000 residents that were exposed to lead when the city switched water sources from the city of Detroit to the Flint River back in the fall of 2014.

      While services are not supposed to change, and there is $200 million in state money dedicated to finding relief, residents are concerned. These are some of the same officials and institutions that reassured them they had nothing to fear from the brown, foul-smelling water that was actually poisoning their children with lead.

      "The uncertainty is what's going to happen next and what does it mean?" said Maegan Wilson, a 36-year-old mother of two and lifelong Flint resident. "This is more than just an emergency, this is a total disaster."

      President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint nearly eight months ago, freeing up $5 million in federal funds. National teams were sent in to assist residents as they coped with the impacts of toxic water, in part to bolster a slow state response that failed to ensure residents across the city had access to bottled water and filters.

      Related: Sees the National Political Spotlight Two Years After Its Water Was Poisoned

      Bottled water became the most visible contribution from the federal government, with the safe drinking water supplies brought in and paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Federal officials were a comforting presence in the city for residents, including staff from FEMA and the surgeon general's office.

      Since then, criminal investigations have revealed what was happening behind the scenes: officials at all levels falsified water quality reporting, ignored warning signs, covered up damning evidence, and knowingly put out incorrect information about the safety of the drinking water.

      Since the emergency was declared on January 16, the federal government paid for 75 percent of those costs and the state picked up the rest. With the state of emergency officially over, the state is now taking on all of the water supply costs.

      State officials are at least attempting to reassure residents that they have nothing to fear from FEMA's departure now that the August 14 expiration date has arrived.

      "It's just another day, another date on the calendar," said Ron Leix, a public information officer with the Michigan State Police division coordinating the state's response task force.

      Leix said the state will meet its obligations to fulfill the water supply needs and continue operating pickup locations in Flint, until experts determine the city's system is safe.

      Related: 'Smothering the Outcry': The Inside Story of How the State of Michigan Poisoned Flint

      Despite assurances that the state will continue supporting Flint's recovery, residents like Maegan Wilson wonder if they will stay with the city until the crisis is over. She's also concerned that healthcare needs and infrastructure improvements — like replacing the lead pipes — will be neglected. According to Wilson, it's hard to put faith in anyone after being treated as if their lives were expendable.

      "The trust just isn't there among the people," Wilson said. "They don't trust that it's going to be fixed."

      Michigan state Representative Phil Phelps, a Democrat representing Flint and surrounding areas, criticized the state's early efforts as uncoordinated and insufficient. Fire stations were turned into water pickup sites, but they relied on the donations that were pouring in from around the country. Supplies were not dependable and often ran out. Phelps pushed for FEMA to respond after he saw that the state was constantly running out of water and not paying for its own supplies.

      The question is whether the state is more capable today to deliver safe water to people than it was eight months ago.

      "They're really saying the state of emergency does not exist any longer in the city of Flint in the federal government's eyes, I think it's too early to say that," Phelps said.

      Complicating matters is confusion among residents, some of whom believe the federal pullout means water deliveries will stop. Wilson said residents have been stocking up just in case resources are cut off or stricter water pickup limits are put in place.

      Related: The Unraveling of Flint: How 'Vehicle City' Stalled Long Before the Water Crisis

      The state response won't be short of money. In addition to the $200 million appropriated for response efforts in Flint by the state legislature, the state expanded Medicaid benefits for Flint residents and added early education programs for children under three years old. But Phelps said this has not been explained to residents. He recently checked to see the last time the state government had sent a letter to every household with a water crisis update.

      It turned out, the last update was in the fall of 2015 and the memo was telling people the water was not safe to drink.

      "To this day even though they're saying the water is getting safer, there's no difference in the lifestyle of these people," he said. "They still cart water into their homes on a daily basis to support the daily life of their family.

      Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

      Topics: flint, flint water crisis, michigan, americas, health, lead, flint river, phil phelps, environment, politics, united states, lead in drinking water, drinking water

      Comments

      comments powered by Disqus

      In The News

      More News

      Features