Michigan National Guard’s efforts in Flint wind down

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Flint — The Michigan National Guard is winding down its emergency relief efforts in Flint as the city transitions from using firehouses for distributing bottled water to new community centers, Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday.

Since January, about 400 members of Michigan’s Army and Air Force National Guard have been working in Flint to distribute bottled water and lead-removing faucet filters to residents after Snyder declared a state of emergency because of high levels of lead in the drinking water supply.

Snyder said Friday at the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee that the Michigan National Guard will exit Flint by month’s end.

“They truly are great citizens, they’re citizen soldiers and they come to our aid when we need them,” Snyder said of National Guard members.

Late Friday morning, Snyder and Michigan National Guard Major Adjutant General Gregory Vadnais gave guardsmen service awards during a ceremony at a water distribution site at the Dort Federal Credit Union Events Center.

Since Jan. 9, the National Guard has helped the state’s Flint water crisis response teams distribute 1.2 million cases of bottled water, nearly 120,000 water filters and nearly 262,000 replacement cartridges for the filters, according to the governor’s office.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, whose December emergency declaration triggered county, state and federal declarations, said the city did not have the manpower to distribute thousands of cases of bottled water each week.

“We did not have the resources to do that at that time,” Weaver said. “And it was something that was truly, truly needed.”

In recent weeks, the state has been transitioning from using Flint firehouses for distribution centers of water, filters and water-testing kits to new community centers based in facilities of nonprofit organizations, churches and businesses.

Instead of guardsmen, the water distribution centers are being staffed by 120 Flint residents hired to help distribute water supplies, said Stephanie Comai, director of the state's Talent Investment Agency.

Flint residents are being paid $12-per-hour under a $15 million, two-year federal grant the state received to put local residents to work in the recovery effort, Comai said.

Ondra Stocker II, 27, has been working as a water-support team leader for the past three months. He said working to help his community is more gratifying than his previous job selling new and used cars.

Most residents have been more receptive to seeing local people handing out water, Stocker said.

“It’s a level of understanding that you cannot get unless you're going through it,” Stocker said.

Flint’s fire station No. 3 on Martin Luther King Avenue is the last remaining firehouse distributing bottled water and supplies, said Capt. Chris Kelenske, commander of the Michigan State Police’s emergency management and homeland security division.

Fire Station No. 3 will cease as a water distribution center late next week and the remaining 26 National Guardsmen will no longer be station in Flint by then, Keleneske said.

There new community centers are based in Flint’s City Council wards 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9, Kelenske said, and work is underway to open additional distribution centers in the other wards.

“We’re doing our best to get those set up as quickly as possible,” Kelenske said at the weekly Flint coordinating committee meeting, which was held at the University of Michigan-Flint.

Flint residents who are home-bound or disabled can still call United Way of Genesee County’s 2-1-1 hotline to get bottled water delivered to their home, Kelenske said.

“Until the water meets the standards that need to be in place, we’ll provide bottled water and filters to residents,” Kelenske said.

At the end of the weekly Flint water crisis coordinating meeting Friday, Snyder signed an executive order re-establishing a state-level commission aimed at eliminating toxic lead at the center of Flint’s water contamination crisis.

Snyder’s Flint water task force recommended to the panel be reconstituted after a predecessor board called the Michigan Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Commission ceased to exist in 2010, the year before Snyder took office.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley will chair the new Child Lead Poisoning Elimination Board to develop long-term strategies for eliminating all lead children can be exposed to through water, paint, dust and soil. Lead is a neurotoxin that causes irreversible development delays in children.

“We can do this,” Calley said.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician whose research exposed high levels of lead in the blood of Flint children last year, said the new commission will be better than the last effort under Gov. Jennifer Granholm “because the focus is the elimination of lead” instead of just preventing chances of exposure.

“Our Flint story, we’re not going to be defined by the crisis, we’re going to be defined by what we do next,” Hanna-Attisha said. “And this is something that we are doing next to prevent future injustices, future exposures to lead.”


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Twitter: @ChadLivengood