Obama fosters hope in Flint, but fears remain
Flint — President Barack Obama’s assurances Wednesday that Flint’s water is safe to drink from faucet filters was met with skepticism among residents of this predominately African-American city beset by fears of lead lingering in their pipes.
Obama used his visit to the crisis-stricken city of 100,000 residents to promote the use of lead-removing faucet filters in an effort to bring some calm among residents distrustful of government.
“Although I understand the fear and concern that people have, and it is entirely legitimate, what the science tells us at this stage is you should not drink any of the water that is not filtered but if you get the filter and use it properly, that water can be consumed,” Obama said in a speech at Northwestern High School. “That’s information that I trust and I believe.”
But trust was in short supply among some Flint residents in the crowd of 1,100 that packed into Northwestern High School, many of whom booed Gov. Rick Snyder when he appeared before the president in an impromptu attempt to apologize for the public health crisis.
“When our filtered water smells like bleach, there’s no way possible it’s safe to drink,” said Lulu Brezzell, the mother of Amaryana Copeny, the 9-year-old girl known as “Little Miss Flint” who is credited with getting Obama to visit Flint. “There are so many more issues than just lead.”
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician whose discovery of high levels of lead in Flint children sparked the public health emergency, said the president’s speech was a step in “a long process for trust to be rebuilt.”
“Trust has been so severely corroded here by 18 months of neglect, by betrayal,” Hanna-Attisha said after the speech. “And you can have a million studies done on the safety of filters, and many people will still not believe that because they were essentially betrayed by all these agencies that were supposed to protect them.”
The outgoing Democratic president took pains to persuade city residents suspicious of government reassurances that filters and other measures will work.
“I guarantee you that the scientists who work for me, if they tell me something, which I’m saying in front of all those cameras, turns out to be wrong, that person will not have a job,” Obama told the crowd.
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Marlon Randle, 45, of Flint said Obama’s speech was a boost to morale among Flint residents who want their city’s predicament taken seriously.
When asked if he would take the president’s advice and drink the filtered water, Randle was quick to say, “Naw. No.”
“People are worried about the water,” Randle said. “I feel better. ... It was a good speech and it does reassure me that he’s committed to trying to make a change and help our city get fixed. But it is going to be a process.”
Obama’s visit to Flint came nearly four months after he declared a limited federal emergency that doesn’t allow the city to seek the kind of disaster relief funds afforded to communities ravaged by hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. The president did not address that issue in his speech or remarks to reporters Wednesday afternoon after getting briefed on the federal government’s relief efforts in Flint at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
But in his speech, Obama vowed to stay attuned to Flint’s needs in his final eight months in office.
Obama said the Flint water crisis is the result of a limited government ideology that is as “corrosive” as the city’s river water that caused lead to leach from aging pipelines.
In a veiled shot at Republicans who run Michigan’s government and Congress, Obama said the lead-contaminated water is the product of “a corrosive attitude that exists in our politics and exists in too many levels of government.”
“That attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in lead in your water,” Obama told Flint residents.
Obama made the comments during a speech in the city on Wednesday, a few hours after he drank filtered Flint water after a briefing by federal officials on the city’s lead-contaminated water.
The president’s hour-long speech was sometimes comedic but mostly sobering. While the commander-in-chief is popular in Flint, he was mostly greeted with silence from the crowd when he encouraged them to drink filtered water.
At one point during the speech, Obama requested a glass of filtered water. A few minutes later, after the water had not arrived, the president coughed and said: “I really did need a glass of water. This is not a stunt.”
The president vouched for the safety of certified filters and encouraged most city residents to start drinking filtered water instead of bottled water.
The president made remarks and took the sip of water at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, following a 90-minute briefing that included Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Snyder, who initially greeted him and shook hands after Air Force One landed at Flint Bishop International Airport.
“If you’re using a filter ... then Flint water at this point is drinkable,” Obama said after taking a brief sip of filtered water.
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The only exception is pregnant women and children younger than 6, who should continue to use bottled water “out of an abundance of caution,” he said.
“That does not — I repeat — negate the need for us to go ahead and replace some of these pipes,” Obama told reporters after sipping the filtered Flint water.
Snyder has been drinking filtered Flint water to show residents that it is safe. He resumed his pledge to drink the city’s water for 30 days following a one-week trip to Europe when federal transportation rules prevented him from bringing along the water.
Obama said he told Snyder and Weaver during their limousine ride that they need to work together to improve the situation in the city.
“What I said was is that the city and the state and the federal government, everybody is going to have to work together to get this done,” Obama said. “So it’s not going to happen overnight. But we have to get started. We have to get the money flowing.”
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In remarks to reporters at the local food bank, Obama thanked federal officials for their work in the city and said now was not the time for playing the blame game about who caused the crisis.
He also urged parents to have their kids checked for possible lead poisoning while thousands of underground lead service lines are replaced.
“That may be a long-term process. It may take a year, it may take two years, it might take more, to get all of the pipes replaced,” Obama said. “In the meantime, folks have to be able to use water.”
The president also urged residents to help clean out the system by turning on their water for five minutes each day.
Obama was joined at the meeting by Snyder and Weaver, who sat across from each other. Snyder’s office and Weaver’s new administration have butted heads at times over the past four months that Flint has been under a state of emergency.
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“My job here today is not to sort through all of the ins and outs of how we got to where we are, but rather make sure that all of us are focused on what we have to do moving forward on behalf of the children,” Obama said. “That’s my priority. And that’s got to be all of our priorities.”
Obama said the crisis requires officials on opposing sides to “locks arms” and work together.
“There are times for politics and there are times for turf battles. This is not one of those,” the president added.
During the limo ride from the airport, Obama invited the Republican governor to address the crowd, Snyder’s spokeswoman said.
Snyder drew several rounds of boos in apologizing to Flint residents in surprise remarks before the president’s speech — his first to a large public forum in Flint.
“You didn’t create this problem,” Snyder said. “Government failed you.”