Flint residents weary from water crisis

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — The man, built like a linebacker, leaned on an upright wooden pallet that earlier in the day held cases of bottled water, the lifeline of residents to keep them from drinking tap water they do not trust.

Eric Lawson, 59, like many in this lead-stricken city, is worn down. The church volunteer has been passing out water most days since early January.

Rain, snow or shine, he’s hoisted bottled water into trunks and back seats. Volunteers have come and gone but he and several others stayed. Lawson’s seen it all: the thankful families who are thoughtful and kind, and others who scowl because they don’t get the brand they like or get enough.

“It wouldn’t be half as bad if some of the people appreciated what you were doing,” said Lawson, a Buick retiree, his head down.

He then stared out at the gathering line of cars seeking water.

“You catch a lot of verbal assaults. People not satisfied. You give them five, they want 10. If you give them two, they want four. A lot of times, it would be great if we got some volunteers to come in. But we don’t see them that often.”

From the countless volunteers who spend hours each day passing out water cases to some residents who hoard bottled water for fear it might run out to mothers who say their children suffer behavioral issues because of lead-tainted water, the fatigue in this urban, impoverished but proud city is setting in.

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Despite brief optimism surrounding President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit Wednesday, much talk in the city has swirled about Flint residents collecting so much water they can’t park in their garages or use their basements — or even reports of some floor collapses due to the weight of water stored in homes. And relatives and friends are often asked by people who live in Flint if they can just take a normal hot shower at their homes.

And those who live here say there is no end in sight going into the warmer summer months.

Many in Flint believe this water crisis may take years to solve — rejecting Gov. Rick Snyder’s own commitment to drinking filtered water to show it’s safe — and that until lead pipes are replaced, they will continue to search and crave bottled water.

The state alone has distributed more than 959,000 cases of bottled water to residents since Jan. 9, four days after the governor declared a state of emergency over the crisis.

“It wears us down because this is a new way of life for us,” said the Rev. Kevin Thompson, pastor of St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church in Flint where Lawson passes out water donated from all over the country. “We have to get up in the morning and brush our teeth and wash our face with bottled water. And our volunteers ... they have been working a long time. It’s taxing on your body, and it’s emotional. And people are really frustrated.”

Like many in Flint, Lawson keeps pushing forward, saying: “It’s hard, but I love what I’m doing. The fact that I can help people is a blessing to me. But I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say it’s easy, ’cause it’s not.”

The daily struggle is real for Terria Abdul-Rashid, a medical receptionist at a health clinic in the north end where children and parents had been receiving lead testing.

Her arms and legs show visible blisters and bumps she believes are a result of showering in the water, a common complaint from residents. One time, she was asked by a patient who saw her arms if she was a victim of bed bugs. Now, she wears sleeved shirts under her scrubs when she has a break-out.

Many nights, she takes an antihistamine before bed to curb the incessant itching. She’s lost patches of hair, too, she said.

“I’ve never had any skin problems,” said Abdul-Rashid recently as she lifted her scrubs pants to reveal the marks on her calves. She talks about the effects on her daughters, 10 and 12. “After we shower, we itch. Who wants to take a five-minute shower? The days of bubble baths are gone.”

State health officials, meanwhile, have repeated a recommendation that Flint parents can bathe themselves and their children in the city’s water, despite an increase in reported rashes. A federal research initiative led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been exploring what’s behind the rashes.

Hurley Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told The News earlier this year that she, too, has observed an increase in skin rash cases.

Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician whose research uncovered a spike in lead poisoning among Flint children, said a connection with the water can’t be ruled out.

Abdul-Rashid said “our sense of normalcy is gone.” Her garage is full of water, daily evidence the water problem is chronic.

“We’re planning for the long haul,” she said. “We don’t see this changing anytime soon.”

The weight of the water crisis has hit Shalanda Taylor, 34, hard. Her 9-year-old son, Elijah, she believes, suffers from escalating seizures and behavioral problems as a result of drinking water at both her parents’ homes in Flint.

Taylor said the problems with her son began in 2014, the year the water source was switched to the Flint River. Now, the nursing home health assistant who works the third shift has to take the month off work to get more extensive testing for Elijah, when she can’t afford it.

“He don’t stay focused for a long time and then you try to calm him down,” Taylor said. “It was to the point where he would hurt himself. I couldn’t deal with him, and my mom, she couldn’t really deal with him. Sometimes, he’ll run down the stairs and he’ll blank out.”

Ashley Crockett, 28, of Burton, said she makes water case stops two or three times every week, down from before.

“But I know a lot of people come every day and get water,” she said. “It becomes irritating to have to keep coming, driving out to get water. It puts a lot of pressure on you. You have your kids in the car and carrying all this water around and lift it out and put it in your house. It’s a lot of work, especially single mothers. Hopefully, God can bless this city.”

Meanwhile, Lawson will continue to make the effort to give out water, he said, “as long as it takes,” even if volunteers continue to peel away.

“When we first began, we had a lot,” Lawson said. “As you can see, it’s dwindled down.

“I’m going to go as long as my body allows me to go and the Lord gives me strength. If it’s needed that we’ll be here another year, another two years, if I’m capable, I’ll be here.”

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming