First day volunteering in Flint: The problem

Just in like Greece, where to begin?

The first day was not such a shock to the system that my first night working on Chios was, but I can definitely say that it was an eye-opening experience on a few levels. I think I have to start by explaining the problem, however, for any of what I write after to make sense. This is it in a nutshell, according to my own understanding:

Very basically, almost two years ago (!!!), the water that was provided to the City of Flint switched from City of Detroit water (piped up to Flint) to the Flint River in a cost-cutting move. As far back as August of 2014, the Flint Public Library was the first to stop using Flint’s water, citing discoloration, shortly followed by a General Motors plant, because the water was corroding car parts (!) in October 2014. After that, it gets quite complicated as to who said what and when, the back and forth that took place. At a few points, state officials said the water was still okay (even though this was not true) and nothing was done. But, the full-on crisis and awareness of the issue didn’t take hold until January of this year after a full-fledged study conducted by Virginia Tech University showed the gravity of the problem: lead and other contaminates in the water. I found this Washington Post article helpful in visualizing just how bad the problem was. And, we all know that lead in the water is bad (an understatement), especially for children who are still developing, as it can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth (stunting), hearing problems and anemia (according to the EPA).

Flint has now switched back to Detroit water, so problem solved, right? No. When lead pipes are used for water, they either have a mineral coating to prevent the water from corroding the pipes and taking the lead with it or phosphates are injected into the water to maintain the mineral coating. The contaminated water that came from the Flint River corroded the mineral coating to non-existence, so lead was seeping into the water (on top of other contaminates). The solution now is to put more phosphates in the water to build up the mineral coating again. The problem with that is it could take up to six months. This is cheaper (and maybe even quicker?) than digging up and replacing all the pipes (although there are calls to do this). This is my rudimentary understanding of the issue.

The end result is that Flint residents will not have clean water for some time. Combine that with a few factors, the most notable being that around 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. From this article, but not sure where their numbers come from, it’s 41.5% below the poverty line, a quarter of families have incomes below $15,000/year and the child poverty rate is 66.5%. And while Flint is 56% African American and 37% white, the city, apparently an outlier, is race-neutral in terms of its poverty. And I can tell you I witnessed this yesterday.

When the Virginia Tech study results broke in January, mayhem broke loose and everyone in the city was looking for alternative water sources. This primarily came (and may still be?) in the form of bottled water. Mostly the half- and one-liter variety. That is when you probably saw in the news about celebrities, athletes, organizations, companies and all sorts of people buying cases and pallets of bottled water to be sent to Flint. Seeing the warehouse where all that was stored yesterday (pictured above) and the problematic logistics for entering and leaving tractor trailer trucks (one at a time), it’s a wonder how this was all able to work. These pallets would be offloaded into the warehouse, unpacked and repacked (because not all bottled water cases are equal), and then placed in smaller moving truck-sized trucks to be disseminated throughout the city by smaller volunteer teams. I heard that the State Police was helping with this at one point, but people would not open the doors to them. At peak, 190 of these trucks were moving throughout the city delivering cases of water. Flint, a city with a population of around 100,000, was living entirely off bottled water for all uses (because people just were not informed about what was okay/not or didn’t trust whatever information they were getting (could you blame them?)).

The home delivery of water has trickled (no pun intended. Okay, maybe) down to just two trucks (although this would be more if there were more volunteers – post coming in the future on how to come volunteer) and I was on one of those yesterday. More on that and how that number has come down in my next post.

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