Flint crisis is daily struggle for young and old

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — Her father, tender and patient, held her firmly as the needle pierced her skin and her tiny jaw quivered. Tears and screams came quickly, but Terrence Boone didn’t want his 2-year-old daughter, Ja’Terra, to feel anything but love.

This was not supposed to happen so soon to Ja’Terra or Mi’Ajah, 1 — their blood being tested for lead after drinking water from the contaminated Flint water system in a crisis that has both stunned and troubled a nation. The sight of his children being poked and prodded made him melancholy. And angry.

Porshe Loyd, 20, washes her 3-week-old son, LeAndrew, with bottled water, an expensive exercise she deems necessary. “If I bathe him in (Flint water), it’s going to break him out,” she said.

“I don’t like to see it, to see them crying and yelling and all,” said Boone, 22. “It’s worth it, though, to make sure they are good. We’re going through a lot. Now we can’t take a bath or drink the water, and we’re paying for water.

“It’s sad we’re going through this ...” his voice trailing off.

Flint, anchored by General Motors Co. and home to the Halo Burger, is in chaos, an impoverished but proud urban American city under the daily crush of thirsting for clean, bottled water. And while the country — actors, musicians, philanthropists, churches, the average human — has responded to the need with semis chock-full of bottled water, the residents here are living it. Safe drinking water has become a luxury for them.

In many cases, they are struggling with the idea of showering in water that many say makes their skin break out in rash despite being told by officials it’s safe. That smells putrid. And that they simply don’t trust — along with the public officials whom they blame for putting them at risk.

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The reality has hit Porshe Loyd, 20, hard. She is the mother of a 3-week-old and only bathes her son, LeAndrew, in bottled water — an expensive gesture for any parent. Cases of water sit near the door of her modest home in northwest Flint; much of it will be gone soon. It takes about five bottles to bathe him, she said.

Loyd, who herself has broken out with rashes over her body since October, said she will never put her baby in the city water, even if experts say there is no scientific link to the rashes and the water, which was switched back to Detroit’s system in the fall from Flint’s river water after nearly two years of protests.

“If I bathe him in it, it’s going to break him out. If it’s breaking me out, I’m pretty sure it’s going to break him out,” Loyd said.

When contemplating the expense of it all despite receiving donated bottles, she added: “Whew, it’s a killer.”

‘We need’ water

State officials say they are doing everything they can to get free bottled water and filters to every Flint resident, going door-to-door and staffing pickup stations in five locations throughout the city. A spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder says they have covered the city twice with water distribution efforts, leaving pamphlets at homes where their knocks went unanswered.

Kevin Thompson, 43, pastor of St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church on the city’s northwest side, is living the front lines of the daily challenge for water. For the past two weeks, his church has hosted a free water giveaway with donations coming from as far away as Atlanta. They check IDs and, in many cases, will give more than one case of water.

To some, Thompson said, it might seem wrong if residents are hoarding water. He warned that “it’s not that it’s greed or anything. They just don’t know what’s going to happen and how much they need.”

A stainless steel sink at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church shows the effects of Flint’s water. A new water heater is also needed.

The need, church members say, is mighty. One parishioner witnessed a man, who depended on public transit, who rushed to pick up water with a wheeled suitcase only to miss his return bus home. Others without cars simply walk home with a case.

The pastor himself says he is a victim. Red rash spots have formed under his eyes, shown more clearly without his glasses.

“I’m all jacked up,” he said. “I’ve never had this problem.”

The damage the water caused was evident in the church basement where the year-old stainless steel sink already had rust spots and the building needs a new water heater after one was recently installed.

Even the basic effort of cooking meals or making coffee are done with bottled water. No one wants to cook with the tap water. Thompson said one of the matriarchs of his church said she needed five bottles of water to cook her greens.

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He shook his head at all of Flint’s problems but never thought of this. Especially Loyd’s bathing of her newborn. The church is helping to provide her with water.“The water doesn’t care what color you are,” the pastor said. “It’s all of us. The people that come in, old folk, young folk, black folk, white folk, Mexican folk …they are coming to get this water because we need it.”

“It just really pulled at my heart strings,” Thompson said of Loyd. “It hurts, man, it really hurts to see my city that I was born and raised in, in this condition in America. You need water for everything.”

People ‘think we’re dying’

Kim Richardson, 50, who lives near the south side of Flint, also lives a daily struggle with water. The edges of her hairline, she contends, have thinned out because of the corrosive water from the pipes. These days, her children only bathe and brush their teeth with bottled water.

Richardson is stunned officials chose to switch to the Flint River in the first place because “every time you turn, they are finding bodies, vehicles, I mean everything but a house.”

What is most frustrating is her mentally challenged, 28-year-old daughter whose stunted growth and inability to speak make her childlike. Suffering from health ailments of her own, Richardson uses bottled water to bathe her daughter, too. And she has to constantly keep an eye on her because she will attempt to drink water out of the faucet.

The nation’s sympathy, Richardson said, is appreciative and yet startling. A woman from another state who was dealing with Richardson's 401(k) over the phone said, “ ‘You’re in Flint? Oh, my God. I’m really going to work hard to make sure you get your money.’ It’s starting to really upset me because we have people that think we’re dying.”

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That has crossed the mind of Anna Howard, 93, who worries about the latest crisis and its impact on her city. Her daughter and caregiver, Nancy Watson, 72, refuses to bathe her elderly, legally blind parent in bathtub water. Instead, she uses about six to seven bottles of water, which takes twice as long because the water has to be heated.

“I take what they give me,” Howard said of church volunteers and family members who bring her bottled water each week. “I didn’t know the water was in such bad shape. The water bill is so high, and we don’t even use it. It’s terrible.”

Watson said she was “raised drinking” out of the tap and the transition to bottled water has been a challenge. The water that comes out at her home has a putrid smell at times, she said.

“And it doesn’t taste good, I don’t care what you do to it,” she said. “Even running it through the filters, it’s not the same taste. I can’t bathe her in that water with her age and her skin the way it is. She itches. And the way she scratches, she digs in her skin.”

Anna Rushing, left, with sister Nancy Watson, who uses six to seven bottles of water to bathe her mother Anna Howard, 93.

‘Nothing to look forward to’

Meanwhile, those such as Loyd remain unconvinced the water will ever be right to bathe and drink again until money is invested in replacing pipes and other problems that allowed lead to leach into the water stream.

But bathing her LeAndrew in bottled water has become an art form now. She places him in his blue baby bather seat that fits comfortably in her kitchen sink. Setting four empty water bottles off to the left, she uses the water in a plastic white bowl with baby soap heated earlier in a microwave to her right to slowly wipe him down.

At first, he coos. Then, with his outstretched left arm almost reaching for his mother and his eyes looking up at her, LeAndrew begins to cry. Another heated water bottle is used to rinse him down.

“It’s a struggle,” she said. “Cause you still have to pay your water bill when you’re barely even using it. It’s hard. It really is. This is nothing to look forward to live for.”


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