FLINT, Mich. — It kills him to say it, but Darren Bentley is thinking about leaving town. He was born here, went to Kearsley High School and rents a place near a couple of college campuses. He has never lived anywhere else.
His father worked at the old Fisher Body plant. So did an uncle and both grandfathers. His grandmother worked on the line at Flint Metal Fabricating.
But the only way that Bentley, 33, and his wife, Laura, can provide safe water for their four boys is by driving every day to the local firehouse, where Army National Guardsmen plop a case or two of bottled water into the back of their SUV. The unending hassle of making sure the children can drink and bathe without being exposed to poisonous lead has worn the couple down.
“I never intended to leave,” Bentley said. “This is my home. This is my family. This is everything I know.”
The residents of this battered city have lived for years under some of the worst conditions in urban America: soaring levels of violent crime, poverty, unemployment and blight. Now, for many, the catastrophe of a water supply that may be poisoned indefinitely appears to be the final insult.
Many are desperate to escape the city, but some don’t have the means to do so. The old and poor, especially, are stuck. Meanwhile, a small band of civic and political leaders is trying to chart a way forward amid the wreckage of a disaster often compared to Hurricane Katrina — which at least eventually led to some redevelopment in New Orleans.
“I’m going to give the city maybe six months,” said Brittny Giles, a 25-year-old single mother who is raising three young children next door to the home where she grew up. She bathes her 9-month-old daughter in bottled water and can recite her children’s blood lead levels from memory.
Relatives in Georgia are begging her to move there. “I don’t want to leave,” she said. “But if there is no water or schools for my children, I have to give them a better future.”
Less than a month after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state of emergency, only one thing is clear: Resolving the crisis will be very expensive. Mayor Karen Weaver has estimated the cost of removing lead service lines from 15,000 homes at about $45 million. Combating the potential impact of lead poisoning in the 9,000 children exposed to tainted water starts at $100 million, according to Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who is proposing the multifaceted program.
Overhauling Flint’s waterdistribution system, if necessary, could cost more than $1 billion, a tab only the federal government could pay.
Beyond the $28 million provided by the state and some private donations, it’s not clear where the money will come from. And everyone here acknowledges that there will be little progress until safe water begins flowing through the taps and people are persuaded to drink it. No one is even willing to guess when either will happen.
The crisis stems from an April 2014 decision by then-emergency manager Darnell Earley to save money by temporarily switching the city’s water supply to the Flint River. Earley was appointed by Snyder and given authority that superseded that of the mayor and the city council.
The state then failed to ensure that the city added anti-
corrosion chemicals to the new water supply, which leached lead from aging pipes into tap water. Almost immediately, users began to complain of foul-smelling, discolored water, and some residents broke out in strange rashes. Eighty-seven people developed Legionnaire’s Disease, resulting in 10 deaths. Some suspect that the water is at least partly to blame, although that has not yet been proved.
Flint switched back to Detroit water in October, and experts are trying to re-coat the pipes with chemicals. So far, that hasn’t worked. Water filters are being distributed for free throughout the city. But they don’t fit some sinks, and some people say that they are still finding high levels of lead — even in filtered water.
Among Flint residents, the worst off may be the city’s disproportionate share of older people. Largely poor and African American, they are stuck with homes that would have been difficult to sell even before the water crisis.
“At my age, I’d hate to start all over again and give my house away, because that’s what it would require,” said 72-year-old Delmont Jackson as he played eight-ball pool at the Hasselbring Senior Center last week. He doubts that he could get $15,000 for his home and thinks the state should relocate him, but he is resigned to living on bottled water indefinitely.
“What are we going to do?” asked Kala Green, 72, as a bingo game broke up in a large social hall a few steps away. “Ain’t nobody gonna buy our homes. And I don’t have no money.”
Virtually everyone here says that they follow the admonition not to drink unfiltered tap water, but beyond that, many of the city’s 95,000 residents make their own rules. People bathe less often and limit their time in the shower. Others refuse to let contaminated city water touch their skin and have found places to clean up outside Flint.
Some cook with city water; others keep large jugs of bottled water to clean and prepare their food. Yakima Givens said that she boils water before washing her dishes — a common practice that unfortunately concentrates any lead that may be coming through the faucet.
“I don’t even know if it’s safe to wash my clothes in it,” she said as she watched her three children get tested for lead exposure at a festive event last week that featured free food and toys.
Even those blood tests are controversial. Many people who attended the event said that they wanted to know if their children had been affected in 2014 and 2015, when authorities repeatedly assured them that the water was safe to drink. But the tests only reveal lead ingested in the past two to four weeks. They are useless for long-term retrospective diagnosis.
Meanwhile, some people are still paying their water bills — which were among the most expensive in this region — afraid that service will be turned off or they will lose their homes if they don’t. Others now refuse to pay for water that they can’t consume. Weaver and other officials support that sentiment, and the mayor said that she is working on a plan to relieve residents of at least some of that financial burden. Lawsuits are seeking refunds for the entire city.
Snyder has proposed a $30 million credit in the upcoming state budget to help repay Flint residents for a portion of their water costs, retroactive to April 2014.
Outsiders think they understand the confusion and anxiety Flint is experiencing, but that just isn’t possible, said State Sen. Jim Ananich (D), who lives in the city and has a 6-month-old son, part of the city’s most vulnerable population.
“You don’t know what it’s like to have something right in the kitchen that you are afraid to death to turn on,” he said. “I can’t really use it for anything.”
Flint has been emptying out for decades, as General Motors shipped jobs south or overseas. From 196,000 in 1960, the city’s population has fallen to about 95,000 today. “Vehicle City” once had 82,000 jobs at GM plants and its suppliers. Today, there are about 6,000, according to Douglas Weiland, executive director of the Genesee County Land Bank.
Even a brief look around reveals the inevitable result. More than 11,000 vacant lots and 10,000 abandoned homes pock the city’s streets, often side-by-side with the remaining 30,000 occupied dwellings. On Giles’s street, for example, where nine occupied homes once stood, there are now three. Three others are abandoned, and three more have been razed, she said.
About 40 percent of the people here live below the poverty line; the median household income of about $25,000 is less than half the amount a typical U.S. family earns. In 2013, the average home sold for $15,000. Some people have been trying to return donated water filters and cases of water at local chain stores for a few dollars, forcing guardsmen to alter the bar codes on the free items.
For years, Flint has jockeyed with Detroit and a handful of other places for the dubious distinction of America’s most violent city.
There have been stirrings of progress along a few blocks downtown, where a handful of bars and restaurants stand near the campus of the University of Michigan at Flint.
But now the water is poisoned, and the world knows it.
“Every two steps forward, there’s always five steps back,” said Rodney Ott, owner of the Loft, a bar and nightclub on Saginaw Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. “That’s the history of Flint. . . . We’re a wreck, man,” he said. “We made the Time [magazine] cover. It looked like Sudan.”
Signs everywhere assure customers that businesses, especially those that serve food and drink, are not hooked up to Flint water or have installed sophisticated filtering systems. But in a statement, Tim Herman, chief executive of the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that restaurants have seen a small decline, universities are having trouble recruiting students and efforts to attract businesses have been hampered.
Even when safe water begins to flow again, trust in government may lag far behind. During a fiery rally at First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church last week, an overflow crowd of African Americans cheered wildly as leaders called for Snyder to be jailed and others to be held accountable.
“This is a crime against the people of Flint, a crime against humanity,” shouted attorney Benjamin L. Crump, who represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and has filed one of the class-action lawsuits on behalf of city residents. “If ISIS were to poison 100,000 Americans, we would call it an act of terrorism!
“Why are the rules different when people commit crimes against us? We want equal justice and nothing more than that!”