Flint Day 3: On the ground

It’s been hard to know how to start this post. I’ve been trying for an hour. So, maybe just with where I left things off yesterday…

I was teamed up with John, a Red Cross volunteer veteran. Not only had he served on two three-week stints during the height of the crisis here in Flint, but has been extremely active in Disaster Response (DR) with the Red Cross through most of the major disasters that have hit the US in the last 9 years (from Sandy to Isaac to Joplin). He definitely had some stories to tell. He’s retired, like many Red Cross volunteers, and lives in Detroit, but currently commutes up to Flint (one hour) when they need his help.

He was the driver, because I can’t drive the vehicle we take around the neighborhoods delivering water (which is pictured above). This is an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV, people call them by the word not the acronym, like “curve” without the “c” – learning lots of new lingo!) and has been my workplace for the last three days. You need a short defensive driving course to officially be able to drive one, so I’m a permanent sidekick when on delivery.

The clipboard that we received had about 50 addresses on the spreadsheet that we were supposed to visit during the day. There are around 20 pre-designed routes right now (put into a UPS-like address system to design an optimal route), but they are trying to narrow that number down. After pleasantries and letting the people know that we are there to check on their water situation, we ask them the following questions:

  • How much water (in cases) do you need?
  • Do you have a filter system on your faucet? If so, which one? If not, would you like one? (filters don’t always fit the faucets, so we offer filter pitchers if that is the case, like a Brita)
  • Do you need replacement filters?
  • How many cases do you use in one week on average?
  • Do you have a sample test kit for us? Or, would you like one? We don’t always ask this one though.

And, that’s about it. Not complicated.

I get into the ERV with John on the first morning and I’m given a GPS to plug in the address at the top of the spreadsheet (and all subsequent). We already have a full load of water (a pallet) and filters in the back, so we’re ready to go. I put in the address and we drive a good 15-20 minutes across town. We approach a small, grey cottage-like house and John points out what will become a key indicator of some of the houses we will visit: there is a handicap ramp leading up to the door.

This was John’s first time driving on a route and he let me know on that first stop, not in words, that I was going to be the one going up to the door to ask the questions while he waited behind and waited for my hand signals as to how many cases he would start to prepare in the back of the ERV. Not having the bestest of briefings and, for those that know me, me not being the most comfortable at initiating conversation with people I don’t know, I was like, gulp. But, whatever, what choice was there?

I walked up the ramp and knocked on the door (few of these houses have functioning doorbells, my sore knuckles can attest), John telling me from about 30 feet away that you have to knock loud, often and wait, because some of the elderly people take a long time to get to the door. Sure enough, after the second knock an elderly African American woman of about 80 came to the door with a cane and a big smile on her face. I went through the questions and John started to organize cases in the back of the truck. When I got all the information I needed, I then went and helped John bring the cases that she requested. We dropped the cases where the women wanted them inside the door and then said our good-byes. The whole exercise took probably 5 minutes. We packed up the truck. I filled out the information on the sheet and then typed in the next address. Rinse, repeat.

On average, we give about three cases per household. We usually provide the number that people ask for, up to six. Up to four, if it’s not too, too far, we just carry them, two apiece. We have a dolly, but don’t use it that often. About 20% of the households request new filters for their Pur or Brita faucet systems. It seems that most people are pretty well supplied with these at this point. If people are not home, we leave a “door hanger” with information about where they can pick up water, how they can call 211 (a 911 for water) and to let them know that we were there. The Red Cross tries to visit each of the 900+ houses on their list once a week.

It’s not difficult and it’s fairly straightforward. We did 47 houses that first day, 54 the second and 62 yesterday. I’ve been with three different drivers, all characters in their own right, from very different backgrounds (a military veteran, an early well-off retiree and a local man who lost a son to a shooting at the Party Store after having lived through the Gulf War (Flint is a very violent city)). It’s been fascinating to talk with each of them about their own experiences and knowledge of the situation.

I still can’t find the proper words for what I will write next. I’m fumbling through it. Maybe another day I will take another crack, but what comes next may be a bit confusing, with holes and gaps, but it’s all I can do right now.

The circumstances of each individual household varies to a great degree. The largest percentage (but not a majority) is elderly people who cannot drive to or carry water. Some have caregivers, but some are absolutely alone with maybe a family member coming by once in a while. Some you wonder if anyone comes to see if they are doing okay at all. You can immediately see the cultural divide between the US (although not just the US) and a good chunk of the rest of the world. Our jobs as volunteers would not be necessary in cultures that valued social services to a greater extent or where people (families, friends, neighbors) looked out more closely for those in their community. You get the sense that many of these people are abandoned. Some are handicapped, some are mentally ill and appear to have very few people in their lives looking out for them. I honestly wonder what would happen to some if we weren’t delivering water. And also question if there are people out there who aren’t on the Red Cross list for whatever reason. And, yes, I’m seeing this, because it’s Flint and there’s this water crisis, but this is happening in so many places around the country.

The second stop highlighted another (but not mutually exclusive) portion of the population we deliver water to. We parked across the street from a two-story brown house that was falling apart at the seams (so many of Flint’s houses are in a sorry state, vacant or burned down). I walked up to the porch and knocked on the door. Lots of dogs start barking. It takes a while, but a heavily overweight white woman comes to the door, waddling slowly. She opens the door then sits down on a chair near the door saying she can’t stand for very long. Small dogs are running around yipping. There is garbage or garbage bags almost everywhere. You can barely see the floor. The stench is overwhelming. There are no lights on and the windows are blacked out. There’s an open sofa bed in the living room with a child in it wrapped in blankets watching television. It’s cold. When the woman responds to questions you can see she has one single tooth, almost rotten and I have just as hard a time understanding her as she does me. I’m guessing she’s younger than 50. I wish I could say this was the only delivery of similar circumstances.

What you witness while doing this is pretty much outside the realm of understanding unless you’ve have had some interaction with impoverished communities. This is not my first time experiencing this, and will not elaborate on that, so it was not entirely new, but I can assure you that some of the scenes I’ve taken in over the last few days would not fall far from what you’ve seen in movies or television shows. What is disturbing is that this is real life though.

What is shocking is the larger picture, the overall extent and depth of the poverty. I ask myself how can we let this happen to the people in our country. Not just the issue with the water. That is something extra. But, how is it possible that we allow people (in so many communities around the country) to live like this? What is wrong with a people that allows their own to live under such conditions? I’m not excluded from this either. I’m just as much at fault as the next person.

In terms of people’s living conditions and choices, I just told myself after that second stop when I experienced the poverty in Flint for the first time, not to judge. It hasn’t been hard since then. These people need water. Period. It doesn’t matter if there are drugs present, there’s no room to enter the house, because of hoarding, how they or their house/apartment smells or any other reason why you might look down upon them. They are human. They need help. They need water.

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