Misuse of emergency management in Flint a costly lesson

Ben Smilowitz

In the Netflix drama “House of Cards,” fictional President Frank Underwood re-directs $3 billion in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for a jobs program in Washington. He simply declares that unemployment is a “disaster” and snatches the cash set aside for actual emergencies. Granted, this is television. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is a Machiavellian character with no apparent moral or ethical compass, and it’s unlikely a similar scenario would play out in real life. But this fictitious episode does illustrate a real-world concern: the misuse of true emergency management powers to advance a political agenda, which is precisely what happened in Flint.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointment of emergency managers to oversee the city of Flint and several other Michigan jurisdictions deemed unable to manage their finances provided appointees unprecedented power to make decisions far outside the purview of traditional emergency managers. What the governor actually created was a grand poobah for Flint, unelected and unaccountable to city residents.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for Flint’s water crisis: the county, the state Department of Environmental Quality, the governor’s office and the federal EPA. Arguably most consequential was the governor’s appointment of an emergency manager for Flint, who unilaterally decided in 2014 to switch the city’s water supply in order to save money. After the switch, inadequately treated corrosive water caused pipes to leach lead into the public’s drinking water, putting residents’ health at risk and poisoning thousands of young children. The “emergency manager” ignored the public health risk until the water crisis became a full-blown disaster.

This negligence and incompetence can be traced back to a state law passed shortly after Snyder took office in 2011. Public Act 4 gives unelected “emergency financial managers” broad powers over city governments. One supporter in the state Legislature called it “financial martial law.” The law’s ostensible purpose was to allow emergency managers to “rescue” cities whose school districts or finances were in trouble. At the time, even the law’s supporters probably didn’t envision that one of the state’s appointed emergency managers would make a decision as disastrous to public health as switching a city’s water supply by fiat, the practical consequences be damned.

Simply put, the so-called emergency manager who made the fateful decision to switch the water supply abrogated responsibilities that he was not trained to handle. Enabled by the law, he operated without consensus, pre-existing plans or ethical guidelines.

The state and its emergency manager for Flint ignored repeated warnings about lead in the drinking water. As early as February, 2015, tests indicated “alarming” levels of lead in one Flint home. But officials told the public there was no danger. A local pediatrician conducted her own study and found that lead levels among the city’s children had as much as tripled.

But only when public pressure became unbearable last fall did the governor declare a state of emergency and the city water source was switched back. What’s worse, the water could have been treated and the lead brought back to safe levels for only $100 a day had state officials acted in time.

The governor’s resignation may be appropriate under the circumstances. But it does not solve the problem. Nor is the problem solved by the recent replacement of Flint’s emergency manager.

While other emergency managers may be chastened by the crisis and avoid overreaching in matters they are not qualified to handle, Michigan law should be amended to limit the overbroad powers of emergency managers. Grave decisions affecting public health and safety should be made by qualified authorities, with guidance from real experts. Emergency managers should follow plans (operational and ethical) and not facilitate a political hijacking that jeopardizes public trust.

Had this merely been an episode of “House of Cards,” viewers could debate the plot developments on fan sites for fun. But this is a real life. It’s time to quit redefining the role of emergency managers and rededicate our state and local governments to what should be their No. 1 priority: protecting our health and safety.

Ben Smilowitz is founder and executive director of Disaster Accountability Project.