As support for Flint grows, students ask: Where have you been?
FLINT — As soon as his hometown began using the Flint River as a temporary water source, senior James Horne Jr. and his family stopped using water from the tap.
That was two years ago. Since then, his aunt and 8-year-old nephew drink bottled water, use it to prepare food and for daily hygiene while Horne finishes his education at Central Michigan University. While at CMU, Horne said he has has seen almost no recognition of the problems in Flint until Gov. Rick Snyder accepted responsibility for the crisis last week.
“How was no one aware of this?” he said. “You have a poisoned city. This will go down in history as one of the biggest failures in American history.”
Almost 100 miles away, students in Mount Pleasant begin the third week of the spring semester, mostly oblivious to issues in the east part of the state.
Flint senior Jasmine Hall is one of 678 students from Genesse County who can’t ignore what is happening. Her 2-year-old nephew was featured on the February issue of Time magazine. Sincere Smith is covered with a full-body rash his mother blames on bathing in municipal water from the Flint River. Her family still showers in the water, she said.
“There is so much that can be done; we don’t have years to fix this problem,” Hall said. “When you have lead in your body there are so many cognitive impairments and developmental problems that can come about. We don’t have years to allow our kids and families to continue being exposed to this water.”
Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children younger than 6 years old are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect cognitive and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning is fatal.
The story so far
Flint’s drinking water became contaminated in April 2014 while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. The city began drawing its drinking water from the Flint River instead of buying it from Detroit as a cost-cutting move while waiting for a new pipeline to Lake Huron to be constructed.
Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards found Flint River water to be too corrosive for public use and determined it needed to be treated, a measure that would have cost the state about $100 a day. A class-action lawsuit filed last year Flint residents alleges the Department of Environmental Quality didn’t treat water for corrosion in accordance with federal law, allowing lead leached from aged water distribution lines to enter thousands of homes.
After the water supply was found to contain high levels of lead and bacteria, Snyder and other public officials have had their reputations called into question. While criticism mounts that officials ignored or neglected indicators of a growing crisis, students who have a stake in the future of Flint deal with feelings of anger and simultaneously organize relief efforts.
Searching for answers
On Jan. 18, America celebrated the life of Martin Luther King Jr., a man who was assassinated for his role as a key leader of the Civil Rights Movement. The next day, Snyder apologized to Flint residents and called a State of Emergency in Flint, where 57 percent of its residents are black and 42 percent live below the poverty line.
Some students organizing donations for the troubled city said the crisis in Flint is another example of government institutions failing the black community.
“I want to quit school and go help in any way that I can,” said Detroit senior Tor Vinson. “Obviously that is something I shouldn’t have to battle with. I see people are receiving brain damage and lead poisoning from this situation. Can you imagine a horrible time in your life when you were backed against a wall? That’s how I feel.”
Vinson and Horne are part of a group of students who are trying to galvanize support for Flint. While still in the early stages, the group has raised $1,200 and plans to organize as a non-profit organization that supports cities across the country dealing with lead contamination.
“How do we live in one of the richest countries to ever exist, in a state that is surrounded by the most freshwater on the Earth, and yet we can’t drink the water?” Horne said. “In a crisis, making yourself heard and unifying is very significant. When you are broken down to your lowest point, you need someone to hold you up, and as a community this is how we come together — by raising awareness and trying to give back.”
Joining them are Detroit senior Xavier Priest and junior Jaylin Whitfield-Wiggins, who said the crisis has shaken their faith in elected leaders. Hall agrees.
“Honestly I already didn’t have much faith in our elected leaders, but this definitely made it go down even further,” she said. “It makes me feel like I need to be someone leading our city. It’s disheartening to know people either were greedy or just terrible at managing the situation.”
Michigan’s governor has bore the brunt of the blame, but there is still plenty to go around.
Snyder accepted the resignation of Michigan DEQ Director Dan Wyant after a task force found his department responsible for not addressing the crisis. Susan Hedman, the EPA’s regional administrator in Flint, also resigned last week.
Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter said now is not the time to “point fingers” at the governor.
“(Snyder) should stay in office because he has done a tremendous job and he should be judged by the totality of what he has done here,” said Cotter R-Mount Pleasant, after last week’s State of the State address in Lansing. “I don’t know how he could have made it any more clear this wasn’t a complete failure of leadership. He has so much more to continue to give, and some are looking at this as an opportunity for political gain, which is unfortunate.”
‘I see a lot of the same faces’
In Flint, the relief effort has kicked into high gear. Members of the National Guard have been working from four sites in the city in 12 hours shifts for 11 straight days. An additional 200 troops deliver bottled water and filters to neighborhoods on foot.
Snyder requested that the State Legislature to fund a series of immediate actions last week. In addition to a $9 million supplemental appropriation for Flint made in October, he requested $28 million, with $22 million from the general fund, and increased the number of National Guard troops in Flint.
Cpl. Jack King said members of the 1-125th Infantry Regiment at the Flint Fire Department serve close to 1,000 people each day. They distribute cases of water and filters built to clean the equivalent of 750 16.9 oz. bottles.
“People are receptive to us being here and are appreciative of what’s going on,” King said. “Some come in and are concerned about if the filter is going to be effective and have a lot of questions about them. I have spent a lot of time reading about them to be helpful and alleviate any stress that they have.”
A line of vehicles wraps around Fifth Street, while troops unload pallets of bottled water delivered by FEMA and the Red Cross. Inside the fire station, King and Staff Sgt. Micheal Cunningham explain the benefits of a water filter, much like one installed in Horne’s home across town, to a resident and her son. Cunningham hands the boy a cupcake, one of many food donations given to the troops by thankful residents.
Newly-elected Mayor Karen Weaver estimated in a press conference Thursday that it could cost up to $1.5 billion to repair Flint’s aging water infrastructure. Coupled with the long-term public health issues, it could take decades to undo the damage caused in Flint.
“We are prepared to stay here as long as needed,” King said. “I see a lot of the same faces, especially from this area, come every day.”
Awareness at CMU
While support mobilizes, Flint students are frustrated with the slow response from the nation and the lack of empathy they see from their fellow Chippewas.
“At CMU it’s like this doesn’t exist,” Whitfield-Wiggins said. “This is not being talked about. Where is the discussion and help? No one cares because it’s not being pushed in their face. People need to know what is going on.”
Phi Delta Theta, a social fraternity started in the fall, partnered with the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority to raise money and collect bottled water. A GoFundMe campaign has raised $1,045 in just nine days.
“I personally don’t think there is enough money (from the state) because so much has been done and all of these people still have to pay their water bills, which is horrible,” said Phi Delta Theta Secretary Galen Miller. “There was a lot more damage done than people really realize.”
GoFundMe itself created a contest for all the campaigns raising money for Flint. The campaign that raises the most money by Jan. 29 will receive $10,000 to help their cause.
Women’s basketball head coach Sue Guevara announced at the Saturday game against Akron that people who bring a case of bottled water to McGuirk Arena will receive a voucher to attend a future men’s or women’s game for free.
About a dozen students also demonstrated on campus Friday to remove Snyder from office. Protestors said they want to challenge the apathy of students and raise awareness about #ProjectSaveFlint, an effort with members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at University of Michigan-Flint.
However, Hall said she has mostly seen indifference among her classmates,. Some have even laughed when she brought up the subject.
“When stuff is far removed from you it’s easier to not take it seriously,” she said. “To them, it’s just a story in the news; it doesn’t have a face. At CMU we say ‘Take Care,’ but do we? This is our opportunity, while the world is watching, to make Flint a little better.”
Horne and his friends said they want to see more unity among students, especially after a week of MLK week programming at CMU.
“I believe that a majority of the campus is not aware of what is going on because we are not paying attention to the news until it plays a direct role in your life,” Horne said. “I am from Flint. I feel like it is my job to let the campus know that this is going on here.”
Built Flint tough
Meanwhile, Flint students have to continue life as usual.
Burton senior Bradley Carone lives near the edge of the city but his sister and three young nieces receive tainted water at her home within city limits. Carone said he struggles to keep his worries at bay while attending classes.
“It’s always on my mind,” he said. “I don’t want my nieces getting brain damage. Just thinking about it puts me in shock. It’s been going on for so long, public officials have had to know that this was going on and I’m surprised something wasn’t done sooner.”
Horne said that growing up in Flint forces you to adapt to hardship, but also learn to be an outlet to help others. The double major in psychology and social work is ready to move on to the next stage of his education after graduating in the spring and has been already accepted to prestigious schools like Yale and Stanford. He said many people associate Flint with the departure of many General Motors manufacturing plants, and once they left, people thought there is no hope for the city.
“That is incorrect because we have young African Americans, whites, Muslims and others from Flint who are trying to make society better as a whole,” he said. “I definitely think that this stereotype should be broken.”
The city still manages to band together in the face of tragedy, residents said.
“When I think about Flint, I think about people who are resilient, I think about the people who are tenacious like myself and the people I go to school with at CMU,” she said. “Flint people are built tough.”