Crowd spanks 'sorry' Snyder for Flint water debacle

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Flint — An unexpected, last-minute decision by Gov. Rick Snyder to step up to a microphone and face a crowd of angry Flint residents set off a tense exchange between the state’s leader and residents suffering from the city’s water crisis.

The governor spoke ahead of President Barack Obama’s remarks Wednesday at Northwestern High School, but Snyder’s words were met by boos and heckling.

“I understand why you’re angry and frustrated,” he said. “I want to come here today to apologize ... to say I’m sorry and I will fix this.”

Snyder wasn’t originally scheduled to talk at the high school. But he accepted Obama’s invitation to address the crowd as the president and the governor were riding together with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver from the airport to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan for a federal briefing on the water crisis, Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said.

Snyder, continuing his months-long vow to fix the city’s lead-tainted water system, told the crowd: “You didn’t create this problem. Government failed you.”

Flint residents in the crowd of more than 1,100 people could be heard yelling “you did” and “you failed us.”

The crowd inside the packed high school gymnasium refused to quiet for several moments as Snyder tried to speak for more than 2 minutes.

The Republican governor’s remarks marked the first time he has apologized to a large public forum in Flint. He has apologized to the city’s residents in smaller group meetings and during his January State of the State address at the Capitol.

The crowd became angrier when Snyder said “we have a short-term water crisis.” The switch to Flint River water began two years ago in April 2014, and the city switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015, though officials tell residents not to the drink the water without a filter.

But Snyder continued that “we have a longer-term issue about building a stronger city of Flint.”

The governor thanked Obama for visiting Flint and sending “outstanding people” to the city since mid-January, when a federal emergency was declared.

Another chorus of loud boos erupted when Snyder said, “Thank you for the opportunity to come share a few thoughts with you today.”

He ended up quickly leaving the stage.

Snyder received a more courteous greeting from Obama as he stepped off Air Force One at Flint Bishop International Airport a little before noon. They both shook hands.

After the meeting, Snyder’s office issued a statement indicating the governor welcomed talking with Obama.

“In today’s meetings with the president, it was clear that he cares about what happened and is interested in doing what he can to help, too,” Snyder said.

“I believe that today we continued to build strong partnerships based on a mutual understanding that all levels of government working together will solve the problems facing the people of Flint and help move Flint forward.”

By contrast, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, got a hometown standing ovation from the crowd.

“You know what this looks like to me? This looks like Flint,” Kildee said to cheers.

The second-term congressman said his hometown’s water crisis was a “man-made disaster.”

“We did not do this to ourselves,” Kildee said. “This was done to us.”