Flint seeks more space for water donations

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Flint — It appears much of Flint’s thirst for safe drinking water has been quenched.

State officials are now seeing a “significant decline” in the need for bottled water, saying 89 percent of the city’s active water customers now have faucets with filters.

“We know we are going through less each day,” said Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, of bottled water. “We think, at this point, it’s starting to stabilize.”

And water donations remain abundant in Flint, prompting state, city and aid agencies to scout out additional storage locations to meet the delivery demands.

Last week, the state expanded from a single warehouse of wrapped, pallet-ready cases to a second site designed to accommodate other stray stacks of cases that have come in.

Meanwhile, the city says it’s identifying overflow locations to manage “spontaneous arrivals,” and the area food bank has leased a neighboring facility with docks for loading and unloading bottled water.

“It has been overwhelming and sincerely appreciated by everybody,” says Sean Kammer, an official with Flint’s administration who helps coordinate water donations.

“There’s so much coming in at once. We have had days where there’s nowhere to put it.”

Tim Hill, 30, a resident of the city’s west side in the 48503 ZIP code, which is known for households for higher lead contamination, said he relies mostly on filtered water and has for quite some time now.

Hill has not been picking up bottled water but said his roommate does.

“We did have one case of water that a church delivered to our house, so we do have some bottled water, but we’ve had a filter for a while. I use the filter mostly,” he said.

Hill said he’s been dealing with the water issue for so long that he doesn’t mind where his safe drinking water comes from.

“My perspective is, basically, it seems really available, and now, if you really want it, you just pull into the fire station and you just open your trunk, and they fill you up with what you need,” he said. “You see it on church signs, and it seems like it’s all over if you need it.”

Officials also aren’t complaining. The challenge of accommodating the voluminous water donations has been a positive one, and they don’t want to risk slowing donations since the timetable on the need remains unclear.

Since Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in the city over its lead-tainted water system in early January, the state has distributed close to 338,000 cases of water, according to figures provided Thursday. Overall, state officials had collected more than 502,000 cases for Flint residents through donations and purchase.

Those figures don’t account for community-based water collection efforts. The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan and its partner agencies have passed out another 3.57 million bottles of water since September.

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and Councilman Andre Spivey this week touted a shipment of more than a million bottles of water being trucked to several of Flint’s faith-based and aid agencies through the “Detroit to Flint Water Campaign.”

The delivery is among an outpouring of support for the city from celebrities, communities, groups and individuals.

Officials initially grappled with logistical challenges as Flint has been inundated with cases of water trucked and mailed in from across the state as well as out-of-state cities such as Toledo and Louisville. Celebrities from Cher to Aretha Franklin, R&B singer KEM, Sean Combs and Mark Wahlberg have also stepped up, pledging to lend a hand with funding and supplies.

“In an emergency, donation management is always a challenge,” Michigan State Police’s Banner said. “At this time, we’re in a pretty good place with that.”

Flint’s water crisis stems from the city’s switch to Flint River water in April 2014 while under control of an emergency manager. The city switched back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water system in October.

Snyder made the emergency declaration for Flint on Jan. 5, allocating state resources in cooperation with local response and recovery operations.

Banner said the Michigan National Guard continues to disseminate water at five Flint fire stations daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and will continue indefinitely.

The state has distributed more than 106,000 faucet filters and more than 37,000 testing kits since the January declaration, she said.

Banner said water filters have been going out in the community and were available since the fall, before the emergency was declared. But a big push to get them to residents was made in January and expanded locations to obtain them became available.

For the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, donations and distribution have remained steady.

Each week, the food bank’s network of agencies is distributing water at 40 sites and sends an average of 37 semi truck loads of water out to the community, says Kara-Lyn D. Ross, the food bank’s vice president.

“There’s not truckloads that sit for very long. They are really right back out,” she said. “People are comfortable using the filters, but there’s still a lot of need for drinking bottled water. It comforts people to know that it’s bottled and from a safe source.”

The food bank owns two buildings and is now leasing space in a neighboring warehouse with additional docks for semi trailers to unload. The added space is helpful since the organization must still manage its food operation.

“We have seen donations continue,” she said, noting five or six semi truckloads are coming to the food bank daily. “We’ve now expanded to a seven-day-per-week operation.”

For the city’s part, Kammer said Flint officials have been working to establish overflow locations, including a parks building on East Avenue, to manage “spontaneous arrivals of cases that we didn’t anticipate.”

Officials, he said, have urged groups planning deliveries to call ahead to schedule drop-offs. The coordination, along with the additional storage space, has improved the process across the board.

“We’ll still always need water. We don’t want to turn any away,” Kammer said. “We just need to be able to handle it at a pace to move it around and store it. Those safety nets are there now.”

For information, visit helpforflint.com or fbem.org.


Freelance writer Jacob Carah contributed.