Volunteers deliver water in Flint amid lead crisis

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
State officials Tuesday officially began distributing water and filters to residents struggling without because of the lead poisoning crisis gripping this city.

Flint — The moment Brianna Lewis opened her door Tuesday, the volunteers who braved the cold and falling snow to bring her a case of bottled water and a filter were a welcomed sight.

The lead contamination crisis that has gripped this hardscrabble city has personally affected Lewis and her month-old baby girl. Lewis herself has broken out into rashes and sought treatment at a hospital, and she still fears bathing her little one in the city’s water initially deemed safe by state officials.

That decision by officials to switch Flint’s water source nearly two year ago has left her angry, she said, but Lewis is thankful to law enforcement officials and other volunteers for bringing supplies, including a water testing kit.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” said Lewis, 24, through her door on Dupont Street. “It’s affected me a lot. It really has. I’ve been in the hospital even for this. I had broke out from the water.”

Volunteers with the state's department of Health and Human Services, along with Michigan State police troopers and Genesee County Sheriff's office, braved 18-degree temps and snowfall to reach residents in north central Flint near Dupont Street.

In the blowing snow and swirling wind, state officials Tuesday officially began distributing water and filters to residents struggling without because of the lead poisoning crisis that has put Flint in the national spotlight and even drawn comments from the White House.

Scores of volunteers with the state’s department of Health and Human Services along with Michigan State Police troopers and Genesee County Sheriff’s deputies fanned out into 18-degree temps and snowfall to reach residents in north central Flint near Dupont Street.

Meanwhile, Lewis had a message to Gov. Rick Snyder, under fire from many here because the switch to the corrosive Flint River happened during a state takeover. Bluntly, she said: “Can you please just fix this? We can’t drink this. We can’t cook with this. We’ll be real sick. We can’t continue with this.”

State officials are promising residents a “continuous flow of water” so that every household is covered.

Although some questioned the presence of law enforcement combing the areas to deliver water and supplies, residents seemed ecstatic that someone, anyone cared. One motorist called out to a state trooper: “You are doing a good job. We love you guys.”

The trooper responded, “We love you, too, man.”

“There’s an outpouring of help from the community, “ said Lt. David Kaiser, a spokesman for the Michigan State Police at an early news conference with hundreds of bottles of water behind him at a holding warehouse. “We are going door to door, and we will continue until every resident has safe drinking water. That’s the goal.”

For the residents who aren’t home, they will be left with a flier on the door “letting them know about the resources available,” Kaiser said.

Each resident, state officials say, will receive a case of water, a water filter, a replacement cartridge and lead testing kits.

Mary Ann Davis, 61, who lives near the corner of Mount Elliott and Stockdale, answered her door to receive all the water supplies volunteers offered.

Although living in New York for graduate studies for a few years before returning to Flint in August, Davis said she is troubled about the possible long-term effects lead will have on children and adults who drank the water.

“You see this type of problem in the continent of Africa. But we live here in the United States,” Davis said. “And it’s our God-given right as citizens to have clean, fresh water. What really bothers my mind is Michigan has the third largest fresh water supply in the world. So why can’t citizens of Flint, Michigan, have access to clean water?”

Capt. Casey Tofoya of the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office said when he went out three days ago to deliver water to residents, they were thankful and emotional.

Tofoya said it’s the “human element” that touched him most, especially with the elderly and disadvantaged.

“It’s such a huge operation that we have to combine the efforts of all our local entities,” Tofoya said. “When we factor in the sheriff’s office, the state of Michigan and the volunteers, everyone has to pitch in here.”

Lisa Smith, 46, of Flint, who is an office supervisor with the health and human services office, was one of the volunteers on hand to deliver water, which began around 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Smith said she wanted to help because “I know a lot of people that are disadvantaged and don’t have vehicles.”

“I want to help them so they aren’t being poisoned by the lead,” Smith said. “It’s terrible. It’s kind of scary.”

Smith said she received warnings from friends who questioned her logic because of the history of crime in Flint but she wasn’t deterred. She runs in Flint daily and has encountered nice people.

“I’ve heard a lot of negative stuff about, Oh my God, are you afraid? I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’m thinking they’ll be happy and appreciative.”

Gov. Rick Snyder said Tuesday after touring the Detroit auto show that the state will continue to hand out water at fire stations in Flint, as well as supporting operations by faith-based organizations and conducting door-to-door outreach.

“The goal is to get to every household in Flint in terms of making sure they have an opportunity for a filter, for blood tests, for what they need in terms of water to be successful while we go through this period, until we get a long-term solution,” Snyder told reporters.

On Monday, Snyder said the state health department’s Oct. 1 confirmation of elevated lead in the blood of Flint residents was the first time he learned of the extent of the city’s drinking water crisis.

After getting Flint’s water supply switched back to Detroit’s system in mid-October, it took nearly three months until the governor declared a state emergency that Flint’s unfiltered water is not safe to drink. Flint switched to Flint River water in April 2014 to save money.

State officials believe lead is leaching from Flint’s pipes because the Department of Environmental Quality did not require the city to treat Flint River water with corrosion control chemicals.

State health officials have confirmed 43 cases of elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint residents, who complained for more than a year that the brownish Flint River smelled and caused rashes. Lead can cause irreversible brain and developmental damage in children and infants who ingest it through water or lead-based paint.

Snyder expressed regret Monday for how the state’s management of Flint’s drinking water supply ended in what he called, for the first time, “a crisis.”

Snyder said the state is starting to draft a request for federal emergency assistance with Flint’s lead contaminated water crisis.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter: @leonardnfleming

Staff writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.