Our Editorial: Declare Flint a federal disaster

The Detroit News

President Barack Obama promised in Detroit last week that he will “have the backs of the people of Flint.” He backed that up this week with an $80 million water infrastructure grant for the state, much of which should be used in Flint.

The help is welcome. The administration can demonstrate an additional commitment by reconsidering the state’s request to declare the city a disaster area.

Gov. Rick Snyder made that plea earlier this month, but it was rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which said only natural catastrophes — fire, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes — and explosions qualify for a major disaster declaration.

Snyder has appealed the decision, saying the unique nature of the Flint crisis and the public health impact caused by lead in the water pose long-term threats that require greater aid from the federal government.

Obama did declare a federal emergency in Flint, which came with an initial $5 million in funding.

A disaster declaration would bring up to $96 million to the city, which could use every dime of it.

On Thursday, the president said his administration is giving $80 million in aid to Michigan, most of which will likely be directed to help repair Flint’s water infrastructure and ensure the drinking water is safe. That aid comes as welcome for both state officials, as well as Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.

“The residents of Flint could benefit greatly from that type of money,” Weaver said. “We are waiting to see how much of the $80 million will be allocated to the city of Flint and how much of it will go elsewhere, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

But the Obama administration's decision is separate from declaring a disaster in the city.

The state has demonstrated its financial commitment with an initial $28 million promised by Snyder in his State of the State address last week. The governor also has pledged additional aid will be included in the budget he releases next month.

The federal disaster funds Snyder seeks would supplement the state’s spending, and would go to provide additional bottled water and filters and make infrastructure improvements. More than half the funds would be used to replace lead pipes on private property, an essential step to mitigating the lead contamination and restoring confidence in Flint’s water system.

Obama has appointed a federal administrator to work with the city, and hopefully that will open the door to more funds.

Snyder acknowledges the disaster request is unusual — man-made catastrophes are not usually considered for such a designation — but he is also correct in saying the severity of the Flint crisis demands extraordinary measures.

Flint needs immediate help, and it needs to fix its problems in short order. If it doesn’t, even with bottled water and filters, it will lose residents and economic development.

The emergency declaration from Washington is welcomed, as is the federal coordinator.

But more could and should be done.

The president should ask FEMA to reconsider its denial and get as much help to Flint as possible.