Faced with a water contamination crisis that could imperil the health of thousands of people and has has pitted residents against municipal and state officials they have accused of negligence, the Stevens family has had to learn a kind of household triage.
Life now revolves around bottled water. And everyday tasks like brushing teeth, washing hair and bathing have become needlessly difficult.
And like many others in Flint, sickness has befallen the family in the months since the switch to water from the Flint River in April 2014. About a year ago, Stevens came down with strep throat and placed blame on the tap water. So she started relying more and more on bottled water, and now bottled water is a way of life.
“You’ve got to take care of your kids because one day, you’re not going be around, and they’re still going to be affected by this,” she said.
Just about every day, she joins the steady parade of Flint residents who pick up free water distributed by the National Guard. Everyone gets one case per day, but at one point, she used food stamps to buy water. “Before I got my stamps, I was freaking out because I only had that much water to survive on,” she said.
Under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, Flint — a working-class, mostly black city of 100,000 people north of Detroit — switched its water source to save money. But the more corrosive water from the Flint River, which is known locally as a dumping ground, was not treated and caused more lead to leach from the city’s aging water pipes than Detroit’s water did.
Complaints about the water began within a month of the change, but officials did not take steps to remedy the situation until October 2015, after tests showed elevated levels of lead in some tap water in the city and in some children. Lead is a toxin that can damage brains and cause other health problems.
The city switched back to Detroit water in mid-October, but the contamination continued. According to Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, despite switching back to water from Lake Huron, it was too late to undo corrosion damage to the water pipes, The New York Times reported.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials are now under fire from many quarters for their slow and insufficient response to the crisis. Snyder, a Republican, has rejected calls from critics for his resignation. He asked the Michigan state legislature this week to approve $28 million to assist Flint and said there would be additional funding requests.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama said his administration would provide $80 million in aid to Michigan, much of which will go to remedy the situation in Flint, The Detroit News reported.
Stevens blames local, state and federal officials for the crisis. “They were lazy. They wanted a cheaper way out. You get what you pay for.”
Snyder is expected to appear before a congressional panel under the auspices of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to the office of Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich. but the media representative for at least one Republican on the committee said details about any hearing “are entirely premature.”
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said that it saw an increase in Legionnaires’ disease cases in Genesee County, which includes Flint, during the time the Flint River was the primary water source but that it could not conclude if the cases were related to the water switch. A report released on Thursday said there were 87 Legionnaires’ cases in the county from June 2014 through October 2014, including nine deaths.
Residents like Stevens have little faith in city and state officials to undo the damage that has been done to their lives.
She asked, “When will we catch a break? When will our lives just go back to what we call normal?”
Al Jazeera and Reuters