Lesson from Flint: 'Test your dang water'

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — On an otherwise sunny day last week in a place where hope is hard to come by, Tremayne Jones did what many here still do to survive: Drive to one of nine stations and load up bottled water cases provided by the state.

Like other residents, Jones is thousands of dollars in arrears on his water bill, refusing to pay for water that has been contaminated in what has been deemed the worst recent lead-in-water crisis in America.

“You still can’t drink the water, you still can’t cook with the water and bathing. ... You get bumps and rashes from the water,” said Jones, 39, as he showed the red marks on his neck in the parking lot of the water station at the far north end of Flint. “It’s still a struggle, a day-to-day struggle. Even if we get cases of water, you don’t know how long that’s going to last.”

Tuesday will mark the third anniversary of Flint’s switch from Detroit-area system water to more corrosive Flint River water, which ended up leaching lead from aging pipes and resulting in a public health crisis that was declared a federal emergency in January 2016.

It changed a hardscrabble city of nearly 100,000 residents and made national headlines. A Democratic presidential debate was held in the city to highlight the crisis, and President Barack Obama and future President Donald Trump visited last year in bids to reassure residents that more help would be given.

Although lead levels have fallen below federal standards, residents are still advised not to drink the water from their taps without a filter. Flint went back on corrosion-control-treated Detroit system water in October 2015.

Flint’s leaders have vowed to replace all of the lead service lines and make the water drinkable in another two to three years, but people here still don’t trust the authorities. Residents say they hope their tales of woe are not forgotten.

Among those are Christina Murphy, 36, and her husband Adam, 37, who live on Flint’s east side. After ingesting the water until August 2015, Christina Murphy said they have had problems, including seizures, neurological issues and dementia for her husband.

“Now he can’t work anymore. I have turned into a caregiver,” said Murphy, who planned to attend Thursday’s town hall to discuss Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s desire to stay with the regional Detroit-area water system. “I have a lot of issues, but I’m not able to get treatment.”

Murphy, who has five children, said she may never trust the water unless she is satisfied that detailed testing is done.

“We trusted our water because we paid top dollar for it,” she said. “It was a big slap in the face. We aren’t getting the help that we need and search for answers.

The lesson from Flint for other communities? “Test your dang water,” Murphy said. “Learn from our mistakes, learn from all these sick people.”

Church stepped up at outset

At St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church in the city’s north end, leaders and parishioners were among the first churches to consistently provide bottled water to residents who needed it. Cases were trucked in from all over the country.

Although the heavy delivery trucks damaged the church’s parking lot, other blessings have happened, such as the state promising to pay for repaving the lot, said Pastor Kevin Thompson.

A foundation donated a water filtration system for a portion of the church’s water, allowing the performance of 19 baptisms a few Sundays ago for the first time in nearly two years, Thompson said. Donations of bottled water have slowed, but church leaders still pass out cases if available after Sunday service, he said.

The struggle with water and trust, the pastor said, is real and ongoing.

“Right now, we’re in a situation where they tell us the water is clean, but don’t drink it,” Thompson said. “That’s like saying, well, I could buy a Cadillac but don’t drive it. I live on the south side of Flint. The water is still messed up. I’m still breaking out with rashes. It’s no getting away from it.”

Even today, Thompson said people from other states call his church to offer help.

“Some people, believe it or not, have just heard about the story,” he said. “That’s weird. And it just hits their heart and they start crying and they want to send us some water. ... There are (other) people around the world that think that the problem is fixed.”

To Florisa Stebbins, the crisis seems never ending. Stebbins, 39, and her family fled her north-end home more than a year ago to live in the suburbs because of a bacterial infection in her lungs that doctors told her may be a result of the water.

Stebbins has seen lung disease specialists and has now become a full-blown astmatic with two inhalers.

“My life has been turned upside down,” Stebbins said while standing outside the Flint house that she grew up in and inherited when her parents died. “I can’t live in my home. All I want to be able to do is to go home. I fear if I go home right now, there’s a large chance that my lung may get me infected, and I’m still healing from what happened to me this past winter.”

Stebbins said “we are far worse off than we it started,” and that she doesn’t see the authorities moving fast enough to “correct it.”

“And I’ve been paying my bill although we haven’t been using the water as much because we haven’t been staying in the house,” she said.

Mistrust of officials persists

City Councilman Eric Mays, a critic of the switch to the Flint River, said there’s still much “frustration” in Flint and many residents have little or no trust in their government to fix the water problems.

“Constantly my phone rings every day with something to do with water,” Mays said. “Nobody seems to want to pay the high water bills for bad water that they can’t use. I agree with that.”

Mays said the state and Gov. Rick Snyder “pulled back credits and resources a little early” from the city. The governor stopped state-subsidized water credits on a part of the Flint utility bill at the end of February because the lead-in-water levels tested at 12 parts per billion, below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

Both Beverly Morse, 83, and her sister Sue Hils, 81, have avoided the water since the crisis began and survive on bottled water delivered by a neighbor near their downtown home Morse has owned since 1962.

Neither women have had skin rashes while showering in the tap water but they long ago abandoned drinking it. They say they are happy that the pipes are to be replaced.

“I don’t know if they can make it right or not,” said Morse, a long-retired General Motors worker. “We may not trust the water because sometime back, the governor and these other guys stood on TV drinking this water and said it’s good, we’re drinking it. And it wasn’t. They lied. We don’t trust a liar.”


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