REBUILDING FLINT AS THE WORLD WATCHES: A four-part series
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Efforts increase to help city in crisis, but students ask: Where were you?
By Malachi Barrett
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.”
Faces of Flint: Former CM Life editor humanizes Flint water crisis
By Malachi Barrett
Since the news broke that drinking water in Flint had been contaminated with lead, powerful images have framed the nation's understanding of the crisis — images that have been primarily shot through Jake May's lens.
May, a multimedia specialist at The Flint Journal and MLive.com and Central Michigan Life Editor-in-Chief from 2008 to 2009, has shown the human impact of the Flint water crisis in a way that only a community journalist can.
His photos have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Time magazine, showing the pain and strength of the Flint community to readers around the world. The downtown Flint native shared a selection of his photos taken for The Flint Journalwith Central Michigan Life and answered some of our questions about what it's like to be at the center of one of the worst tragedies to befall the struggling city.
How does it feel to have national attention on the city you love for events that are so horrible?
MAY: Flint has had an on-again, off-again reputation for some pretty poor things. Between General Motors leaving in the late 80s and now, the crime rate has found its way to be at the top of the chain, and now we have the water crisis. Whenever the nation decides to pay attention to what's going on in Flint, they tend to come in when things are bad.
I would like to say that Flint is a fantastic community full of strength. Regardless of what they have gone through, they're a tough city and incredibly prideful. The city is full of amazing people, and life in our community is just like life in any other community.
I imagine the water crisis is the worst thing that will ever happen here; I hope it is so we can move forward.
How have you seen the community respond to the Flint water crisis?
The community is definitely arm-in-arm and trying to rise up for the betterment of what they can be in the future. The reason anything is being done today is because of the people and their voices were relentless, they are going to be heard.
Not every community has the capacity to stand alongside each other through thick and thin. Flint has been through so much that if you continue to live in this city, you have a thicker skin and are not afraid to stand up for what you believe in. These people did that.
Don't let anyone fool you, there is going to be a long road ahead. The nation has responded; President Barack Obama is sending aid and the state is sending aid, but eventually that is going to go away. There's not enough to complete the process, so the people are going to have to continue to live through these conditions.
There's not going to be an immediate turn-around. It's going to be a long time before these people can even trust their government.
This is a complicated story, but has a strong emotional core. How does your photojournalism communicate the story in a way that the written word can't?
It's a story about the people. It's not about the politics — sure that's part of it — but it's about the people and how they are affected. Being able to intimately show that through pictures isn't easy, and there is a lot of work to still do with that. This is only the beginning of trying to tell this story and show the faces of people who have been affected.
We're a community of 100,000 people, so even if I shot a picture of a new person each day of the year, I would spend a lifetime photographing. The idea is to spend the time with the people, listen to them and tell their story. I don't worry about the rest of it. People will connect to real stories about real people because it relates to what is going on in their lives.
As journalists we give a voice to the voiceless. They need to be heard and seen, and it's my job to let them be seen.
How do you find your subjects and create a level of trust that has allowed you to capture such intimate moments?
I live in downtown Flint. I am right there with them and people see that. I'm at many of the protests and the meetings on assignment. They see my face and talk to me, I listen to them. It's about talking to people and building a relationship that is based on trust.
That doesn't just happen, you have to be a part of the community. If you work in any place long enough, the community will trust you to tell their story.
It's not about me. It's about getting the community exposure so people can understand what is going on.
Professors: Handling of Flint water crisis likely to damage Snyder's legacy
By Sydney Smith
When citizens lose trust in their government, political science professor James Hill said one of two things usually happens: They become more politically active or decline to participate in government at all.
During the Flint water crisis, many people are calling for Gov. Rick Snyder's resignation. Hill said this could lead to a blow to the Republican party, or cause people to not participate in government at all.
"We're asking people to engage in government, and when these things happen, it turns you off," he said. "It accentuates that the government is not your friend, not there to help you. That's the worst outcome of this situation — that people will lose interest."
Hill said he can think of other major crises, like in the 70s when former Gov. William Milliken was part of the "worst agricultural disaster" the state had ever seen. In that case, a man-made chemical fire retardant was accidentally misbagged and distributed by Michigan Farm Bureau as cattle feed. Polybrominated biphenyl was unknowingly distributed across the state, destroying hundreds of farms and thousands of animals. Michigan residents might still be feeling the affects of the chemicals, according to a 2015 Detroit Free Press article.
Disasters like that could potentially motivate people to vote, Hill said.
"Sometimes these moments motivate people to go to the polls and say, 'I didn't like this and I won't show my criticism by walking away,'" he said. "If you look back in history, if you have these environmental crises it forces (the government) to make more dramatic changes than they may want. If people mobilize and go to the polls, it might be that catalyst to get people to express their views by voting."
During his Jan. 19 State of the State address, Snyder became more emotional than Michigan residents had previously seen. Tom Shields, president of Marketing Resource Group in Lansing and Republican consultant, said Snyder is taking responsibility for what happened. Snyder acknowledges that the Flint water crisis will be part of his legacy.
"He's normally the kind of governor who doesn't want to feel your pain; he wants to cure it," Shields said. "He prides himself on getting things done. I think what he's doing now is correct. It's all in for Flint."
How will Snyder's handling of Flint affect the rest of the Republican party, especially Lt. Governor Brian Calley, and Attorney General Bill Schuette, who have both expressed interest in running for governor in 2018?
Jayne Strachan, political science faculty member, said the water crisis in Flint has the potential to harm the party, because in times of trouble moderate voters will often penalize the party in power during the next vote. This means looking back over Snyder's term and assessing if you're happy with how things turned out.
"If voters do that and blame the party, the Republicans will probably take a hit," she said. "There are some policies that were questionable; most obviously the emergency manager program. If people understand that and link it all together, the Republicans will take a hit."
As many have been calling for Snyder's resignation, Strachan said there's pros and cons that should be weighed.
If Snyder resigned, Calley would step in for the rest of his term. In the next election, Calley would be the incumbent. Strachan said these candidates often have an easier time being elected into office because of broader name recognition.
"For people who want to see a turnover, they might be perpetuating a Republican governorship," Strachan said. "But, if (Snyder) is not effective anymore, if he can't get enough political capital to help solve the crisis, I would say at that point it would be time to resign."
Strachan hopes young people will engage in traditional politics, as well as continue the grassroots activism that caused the government to take note of the Flint water crisis to begin with.
The millenial generation is the first in population size to compete with the baby boomers, which leads to the opportunity to swing a vote. Millenials are engaged politically, Strachan said, but don't often make it to the polls.
She said this goes back to the issue of trust. She has found through her research trust in government is the precursor for a healthy democracy.
"You can have structures in place, but if trust is absent, people will not use institutions and you won't have a healthy democracy," she said. "Why would you participate in government if you think it doesn't matter? The damage has been done to the democracy, not just with Snyder."
FOIA exemptions play role in Snyder transparency
By Dominick Mastrangelo
Facing pressure from citizens calling for his resignation because of his office’s role in the Flint water crisis, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder released his e-mails from 2014-15 regarding his involvement.
A portion of the information in the e-mails is redacted. Critics of his administration claim there is more relevant communication material Snyder’s office is withholding.
FOIA is a federal law that allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government.
Michigan is one of just two states that has a shield law, which protects the executive branch from the Freedom of Information Act. All states have freedom of information laws that govern documents at the state and local levels.
Typically, any United States citizen can request official documents from a public body for any reason.
Robin Hermann, an attorney for the Michigan Press Association, said it is “not entirely clear” why Snyder’s office redacted some information.
“Typically in response to a FOIA request, the public body will redact information that falls under one of the exemptions,” Hermann said. “The (Michigan) legislature (and employees thereof) is specifically exempt.”
One typical exemption is matters that could harm an internal investigation or pending legal matter.
In many cases, a public body’s FOIA officer or legal counsel decides which information will be redacted before records are released.
Snyder’s office claims some of the most heavily redacted content in his recently released e-mails is regarding an unrelated lawsuit, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Journalism faculty Tim Boudreau explained why FOIA’s role is critical in a time of crisis.
“The Flint water crisis is an example of why a strong open records law is important,” he said. “It protects the public interest by promoting greater government transparency. Ready access to those documents is a good way to find out who is responsible for the mistakes that were made in Flint.”
Michigan’s shield law from FOIA for the governor’s office is rare and controls what gets released to top officials.
“Snyder's office is exempt by FOIA because it's argued the exemption promotes open, frank and candid discussion of policy issues, especially policies in the formative stages,” Boudreau said. “Michigan is one of just two states that exempts the governor's office, so it seems 48 other states have found a way to protect open discussion while providing greater transparency.”