Even now, the people of Flint, Mich., cannot trust what flows from their taps.
More than one year after government officials finally acknowledged that an entire city’s water system was contaminated by lead, many residents still rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Parents still worry about their kids. Promised aid has yet to arrive. In ways large and small, the crisis continues to shape daily life.
From the pulpit some Sunday mornings, the Rev. Rigel Dawson can see it.
The anger and frustration over Flint’s contaminated water, so visceral at first, over time has given way to something almost worse: resignation.
“It was one more big thing on top of a bunch of big things,” Dawson says.
You have to understand, the pastor says, that people in Flint are resilient. They’ve endured crime, blight, decades of economic hardship. But as the water disaster stretches on, it has chipped away at the usual stoicism of his parishioners at North Central Church of Christ.
“You see the pain it’s caused. You see the discouragement and frustration,” says Dawson, whose own children still must bathe in bottled water. “Members are enraged, depressed, despondent, hopeless. You see the full gamut of emotions.”
When President Obama came to town in May, the 40-year-old Dawson was among the Flint residents who met with him privately. He tried to explain how marginalized people feel, how certain they are that, had this happened in a more affluent community, change would have come far sooner.
“I told Obama, ‘It makes you feel like you don’t count,’ ” he says. “ ‘People sometimes feel that we don’t really matter. We’ve had to fight and wait, fight and wait, for things that should have happened but haven’t.’ ”
Later that day, on stage at Northwestern High School, Obama referred to the conversation.
“I think it was a pastor who told me, ‘You know, it made us feel like we didn’t count,’ ” the president said. “And you can’t have a democracy where people feel like they don’t count, where people feel like they’re not heard.”
That same pastor now comes to the pulpit each Sunday determined to deliver a message of encouragement and perseverance.
Lately, he has relied on a passage from Ephesians, Chapter 6: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Mona Hanna-Attisha broke down and got a cat.
The orange tabby showed up not long after her younger daughter told her, “Mom, ever since you became famous, we never see you anymore, and we don’t have anybody to cuddle with.”
Since the 39-year-old pediatrician went public last fall with research detailing dangerously high lead levels in the blood of Flint children — a move that forced officials to finally acknowledge a public health catastrophe — her life has been a blur.
She has crisscrossed the country, reminding audiences that Flint’s crisis isn’t over. She has told college graduates that “there are Flints everywhere, injustices everywhere,” and that they must have the courage to act. She has continued seeing her young patients — and their anxious parents.
Month after month, she has felt the same sense of urgency.
“I have to keep talking about Flint, and I have to keep advocating for Flint. Because it’s been a year, but not much has changed. We to this day do not have safe drinking water. . . . It’s mind-boggling,” Hanna-Attisha says.
The crusading doctor — named by Time magazine as among the 100 most influential people in the world — tries to compensate for all the time she has missed with her own children, ages 8 and 10. She makes it to as many soccer games as she can and hopes the new cat, Simba, can stay on cuddling duty until her life regains some normalcy.
But she also suspects her girls understand what’s at stake.
“I think they very much recognize the importance of the work,” she says. “They see that I’m a mom to a lot of kids now.”
He missed her at Halloween, when she used to dress up as a witch and deck out the front porch with a smoke machine and a fake coffin. He missed her at Thanksgiving, when she would arrive early to help cook for a crowd of family and friends. He missed her at Christmas, when she made her famous breakfast casserole.
More than a year has passed since Troy Kidd’s mother, 58-year-old Debra Kidd, became one of the dozen people who have died from Legionnaires’ disease since cost-driven officials switched to the Flint River for the city’s water supply. Scores more have fallen ill from the respiratory illness.
Public officials suspected a link between the spike in cases and the new water source long before they informed the public. So all Kidd knew was that one day his mother was bouncing on the trampoline and chasing her grandchildren around the yard. Barely a week later, she lay sedated and dying in a hospital bed, her bacteria-filled lungs unable to get oxygen to her body.
Her son works 60-hour weeks at a local electrical-supply store, trying not to think about all the unanswered questions. On Aug. 2, the anniversary of her death, he took the day off and worked on a deck at his home, trying to sweat out the anger and sadness.
“There is no accountability,” says Kidd, 38, who has filed suit with several other families over the Legionnaires’ deaths. “People die, and things happen. But for it to have been avoidable . . .”
His voice catches. His eyes fill with tears.
He pulls out a picture of his daughter, Jocelyn. She was 2 when Debra Kidd died. Granddaughter and grandmother spent every day together — until they didn’t.
Jocelyn turns 4 next month. Sometimes, out of the blue, she asks when her grandmother is coming down from heaven for a visit.
Darlene McClendon, 62, looks out at the two dozen young faces in her classroom at Eisenhower Elementary School and wonders: How has the lead affected them? Which ones will suffer most?
Already, she is convinced she’s seeing changes in how some students retain her science or math or social studies lessons. “A couple days later, it’s not there,” she says. “I know there’s a difference, because I’ve been in Flint teaching for the last 26 years.”
Last fall, when the state finally acknowledged that lead-tainted water was endangering thousands of children in the city, fear and uncertainty filled the school’s hallways.
“I heard children say, ‘Am I going to die? Am I going to get sick?’ How do you respond without tearing up?” McClendon says. “I told them, ‘No, you’re not going to die.’ [But] I don’t know that they’re not going to get sick later.”
This fall, the school water fountains are still off limits. The children hardly mention the water crisis, even as they lug their bottled water from class to class. “That’s their reality,” their teacher says.
She, on the other hand, seethes about all that has not happened, the help that hasn’t come, the promises that remain unfulfilled. On top of all the other obstacles her children face, clean water has become yet another hurdle.
“They’re behind the eight ball already, and then you add the water crisis,” McClendon says. “That’s what I want to say to the governor: How dare you poison my kids? Our kids. Here we are a year later, and things have not changed for us. Or them.”
“I never thought it would come to this,” Elnora Carthan says, sitting in the kitchen of her small yellow house on McClellan Street.
She bought the home in the early 1970s. Raised her four children here. Worked three decades at General Motors, much of that time assembling brake pedals. She loves her church, loves her neighbors.
But her city’s water crisis has made for a lonely existence. Her three grandchildren used to spend many weekends with her. She’d take them to the movies. They’d bathe in her tub and crawl under the covers with her.
“I miss it a lot. I don’t see them as much,” says Carthan, 71, whose water had among the highest lead levels detected in Flint.
Her son’s family lives more than hour’s drive away, where the water is safe for children, but she can make the trip only so often. “When you’re on a budget, everything adds up,” she says.
She has considered leaving Flint and moving closer to them. But what would this old house be worth? The most recent assessment came in at $13,000, she says, and now even that seems like a stretch.
“If I really could afford to leave, I would,” Carthan says. “My son wants me to just walk away. But I can’t do that. I paid this house off years ago. It’d be just like starting over.”
So she’s stuck, the lonely grandmother says. “You hope and pray for something better, but you learn to deal with it.”
There are mornings, before her husband and five children wake, when Christina Murphy sits alone at her kitchen table and cries.
Only a year ago, life seemed so normal. Her 36-year-old husband, Adam, had steady work and a solid paycheck as a millwright. They volunteered at their children’s schools and were active in their church.
The first sign that their home’s water was tainted came when one of their dogs fell ill. Then another gave birth to a stillborn puppy. Tests soon showed that what was coming through their taps contained lead levels far beyond those considered acceptable.
The children began to display problems. Lilly, a once-cheerful toddler, became noticeably irritable. An older daughter suffered inexplicable abdominal pain. A son started struggling at school. Adam grew unable to work after months of unexplained weakness, fatigue and short-term memory problems.
Now, their savings and their sanity are nearly depleted. They have fallen behind on mortgage payments and medical bills. And while the pipes in their house have been replaced — they bounced between hotels while the work was done — they still don’t trust the water.
Christina’s days are an exhausting blur of doctor’s appointments and calls from debt collectors, fretting over what the future holds and wrestling with an ever-present mountain of bottles of water she uses to cook, clean and bathe her family.
“If you try to analyze it, you’d drive yourself insane. And I don’t have time to be losing my mind,” the 35-year-old mother says. “I just try to live day to day, because everyone needs me to keep it together.”
So she does. Except for those mornings before dawn, when she can cry without anybody knowing.
Trumbell Drive. Walter Street. Brownell Boulevard. Jackson Avenue.
Block by block, house by house, the father and son have spent months ripping lead service lines from deep in the Flint ground.
“It needs to be done,” Bob Revord, 55, says one morning while the crew from Waldorf & Sons Excavating takes a break on Dartmouth Street.
The work is slow and hard, and the workers can replace only a handful of pipes most days. Across Flint, tens of thousands remain underground.
For Revord and his 24-year-old son, Ronald, this particular job has a personal element.
“I grew up in this city,” Ronald says. “I know the pain these people are going through not being able to drink the water.”
His father is one of them. He still lives here, still brushes his teeth with bottled water before heading out each morning to start digging.
Bob Revord says most residents are grateful when the crews show up. One woman made them doughnuts for breakfast. One family grilled them hot dogs for lunch. Lots of people offer them bottled water.
But at times, they encounter impatience and exasperation. “Where have you been?” some homeowners ask when they arrive. “What took so long?”
The men down in the dirt understand.
“It should have been started years ago,” the son says.
“They don’t want to wait,” the father says. “They shouldn’t have to wait.”
“It’s sad that we have to fight so hard for what we deserve in this man-made disaster,” Mayor Karen Weaver says. “It’s frustrating to have to remind people that we are taxpayers, we are U.S. citizens, and we deserve clean, affordable drinking water.”
Flint’s first female mayor knows that this fight will define her tenure. She also knows her city had long been neglected and forgotten. Which helps explain why, when residents complained of foul, toxic water, few officials rushed to help. “I don’t think people thought we were worth the investment,” she says.
Two years later, she sees some progress: A vehicle research center under construction. Restoration of a historic theater downtown. Talk of new grocery stores. Funding for more school nurses and an early childhood program. “We’ve got some things we should be bragging about,” the 57-year-old mayor says.
But she understands that until every lead pipe in the city is replaced, until the water is again safe, the disaster will continue. From her office in Flint’s decaying municipal building, she keeps pushing state and federal lawmakers to actually commit the dollars needed to fix the problem.
“Sometimes, it’s like, ‘Man, we’ve got this jacked-up water,’ ” Weaver says. “Can you put that in the paper? Jacked. Up. Water. . . . I’m tired of it.”
She works the phones, knocks on doors at the state capital and in Washington. “The one thing I’m not going to do is let this story go away,” she says.
On her bookshelf is a T-shirt that reads “Flint Lives Matter.” And, nearby, a copy of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”
Day after day, week after week, Kenyetta Dotson had worried about other people.
She had worried about the stress of Flint’s crisis on her children, who still used bottled water to brush their teeth, wash their hair, cook their food.
She had worried about the desperate families she met whose lives had been upended by the crisis. Mental problems, physical problems, financial problems. People feeling ignored, forgotten, lost.
Everyone, it seemed, was waiting.
“Just waiting for a solution, waiting for answers, waiting for a plan,” says Dotson, 45, a community outreach manager at the Genesee Health System. “A lot of waiting.”
The unrelenting nature of the situation began weighing on her, too.
“When you see families going through trauma, it can be devastating,” Dotson says. “It really just hit me. It all came crashing on me.”
So one evening in August, Dotson drove west out of Flint, to her father’s house, and did something she hadn’t done in more than a year: She took a bath.
She filled the tub with hot water. She poured in bubble bath and Epsom salts. She dimmed the lights, lit a candle and turned on jazz. She soaked in silence for what seemed like hours.
If only for a while, the water was something that could comfort and heal, rather than something to fear.
“I don’t think we know the complete story,” Ron Fonger says one afternoon from his newspaper office downtown.
The longtime Flint Journal reporter has written more than 300 articles about the water debacle since the city began using the corrosive Flint River as its drinking source in early 2014. He documented the decisions of state-appointed emergency managers who were hellbent on slashing budgets. He helped to uncover the negligence and apathy on the part of various government officials who failed to ensure the water was properly treated and dismissed residents’ growing complaints.
He and his colleagues have covered the fallout as well, from the rashes and other health issues some people experienced to the concerns over thousands of children’s exposure to lead-tainted water to the lawsuits and criminal investigations now in progress.
Fonger grew up nearby, the son of a General Motors worker. At 52, he has seen Flint thrive and seen Flint fall.
“You’ve got a lot of poor people in Flint struggling every day to get by and pay their bills and find and keep a job,” he says. “God knows, the water didn’t help things at all.”
He figures the least that those people deserve — that anyone in Flint deserves — are answers.
So each day the veteran journalist works the phones. He digs through stacks of documents and emails released by the state. He looks for more pieces to the puzzle of what went wrong.
“I’m going to just keep plugging away at it,” Fonger says. “There’s a benefit to turning the screw a little bit every day.”
Gina Luster never planned to become an activist.
But in late 2007, when she moved back to Flint after nearly a decade away, she was startled by how far her hometown had fallen.
Her high school had been shuttered. A growing number of homes were abandoned. Poverty and joblessness abounded.
Luster started attending public meetings. She joined fights over the skyrocketing water rates and over the state-appointed emergency managers who pushed the city to switch its water source to save money.
Then came confirmation last fall that the water didn’t just smell and look bad, as residents had complained for months. It was poisoned with lead.
“All these bad things kind of woke me up,” says Luster, who, along with her daughter, Kennedy, has suffered rashes, hair loss and other health problems.
A year later, she is a full-time community organizer for the advocacy group Flint Rising. She protested at the capital in Lansing and took part in a “die-in” on the steps of the Flint water plant. She’s been to Washington repeatedly to make sure that lawmakers refusing to vote for aid for her city “have to look us in the face.”
On a cool fall evening, the 42-year-old activist watches her buoyant 8-year-old daughter play near the banks of the Flint River. She wants her work to leave behind a better place for Kennedy to grow up. But she also wants to set an example.
“A lot of people complain all day, every day. They just don’t know what to do but complain,” Luster says. “I want her to be able to stand up for herself, stand up for her city. She needs to always know that her civil rights are hers. And she can fight for them.”
“Do I worry?” Michael Love says one evening as the sun sets over East Hobson Avenue. He’s sitting on his front steps, watching his five kids ride bikes in the quiet street. “Of course. But what are we going to do?”
The single father, 43, moved his family back to his home town after the children’s mother died, he says. That was in 2013, before all the water problems and health worries emerged.
Love makes sure his children don’t drink from the tap now, but bathing everyone with bottled water just isn’t feasible. The pediatrician has told him the odds are that his children will be all right, but he worries whether lead they ingested before Flint residents realized their water was tainted may have damaged their brains in ways that show up only later.
Each week, Love stops by a church off Saginaw Street to load up on enough cases of water for a family of six. He operates a small fleet of ice cream trucks around the city to make ends meet.
He has considered taking the children somewhere else. But where? And how?
“Of course, I’d want to leave,” he says. “But even if I wanted to, I’ve got all these kids, and I don’t got a lot of money. A lot of people want to run from it. [But] where am I going to run?”