Obama adviser to Flint: We still have your back

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — On the eve of President Barack Obama’s visit to Flint, a top aide to the president said the White House’s message to the beleaguered city is clear: “We’re going to stick with this.”

Cecilia Muñoz, a Detroit native, added Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis is “personal.”

“This never should have happened, it is a tremendously terrible thing, but what is most important now is to ensure that we are collaborating and cooperating with the community and listening to the people who are most affected,” said Muñoz, assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council.

She works on policymaking on a range of issues impacting Americans, including: public health, early childhood and education.

The director’s visit to Flint on Tuesday comes a day ahead of President Obama’s much-publicized visit to the city, which is now enduring a second year of lead contamination in its water system.

Obama in January declared during a speech to Detroit autoworkers that “we are going to have (Mayor Karen Weaver’s) back and all the people of Flint’s back as they go all the way through this terrible tragedy.”

Muñoz reiterated the president’s words on Tuesday, saying: “When the president met with Mayor Weaver in January he said, ‘We’re going to have your back,’ and for the people in Flint, we’re going to have your back for a long time still to come. He takes that very seriously.”

Muñoz visit Tuesday was focused on a “listening session” with church leaders and community representatives at Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ on the city’s north side.

“The primary concern, No. 1 is making sure the water is safe,” Muñoz said. “Being able to open your tap and fill up a pot to cook with, to take a drink, or fill up a tub is something that Americans take for granted.”

Muñoz said the community of Flint requires sustained aid but also attention.

“Here (the water is) a source of a great amount of fear and frustration, so we’re hearing that and that people want this fixed in order to be safe for the long term,” she said.

Muñoz said the federal government is focused on being a “good partner” with the authorities and experts on the ground in Flint. Muñoz added the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is focused on the “long-term architecture of the water system, working along with the state, county and city.”

Muñoz said it’s important that families affected by lead contamination are taking full advantage of services. Making sure the community knows that Medicaid is expanded, Muñoz said, “for any kid who was affected while the water was not safe is going to have services available to them.”

“We’re making sure nutritional services are available as well as at schools and childcare centers to ensure there are more slots available for childcare,” she said.

Muñoz also emphasized the importance of the president’s visit to Flint on Wednesday.

“The president is really coming to connect with people in the community,” she said.

“He’s coming at a time when the spotlight hasn’t been on Flint for awhile.

“There has been important progress, but there is so much more work to do.”

Oddly, on the same day of the director’s visit, a couple pallets in the back parking lot of the church were set on fire.

Yvette Martin, church administrator, said: “Unfortunately, someone decided to set fire to the four gallon jugs of water.”

Martin said a church janitor noticed smoke and flames coming from the back lot where extra pallets of donated water are kept.

“It happened on three separate occasions today,” Martin said.

“Mostly while people are working out front or inside the church.”

The distribution site is also manned by Army reservists and officers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Some young kids, I’m not exactly sure are coming over the fence and are deliberately setting the cardboard boxes holding the jugs of water on fire,” Martin said.

Bishop Roger Jones, pastor of Church of God, said there is a lot of frustration in the community surrounding the water issue and that state and federal government officials need to work together more.

“I think they are attempting to listen to the community, that’s why they’re sending top representatives to Flint,” Jones said. “They’re doing a job, but their effort is going to have to be increased because of the magnitude of the problem. People are fed up.”

Jacob Carah is a freelance writer.