DETROIT — Michigan will pay $600 million to children and families in Flint who were exposed to dangerous lead-contaminated drinking water in one of the nation's worst public health disasters, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday.

In a statement, Whitmer (D) apologized to residents for the "uncertainty and troubles" they have endured since 2014 and acknowledged that the healing "will take a long time."

"What happened in Flint should have never happened," she said, "and financial compensation with this settlement is just one of the many ways we can continue to show our support for the city of Flint and its families."

The settlement resolves a lengthy legal battle that began under her Republican predecessor, Rick Snyder, who was among the many public officials accused of ignoring or even denying the crisis in the poor, largely minority city of 95,000. The problems started almost immediately after Flint changed the source of its municipal water supply to save money, and they continued for nearly two years despite residents' increasing complaints and concerns.

Under the terms of the agreement, 80 percent of the monetary award will go to residents who were younger than 18 at the time of their exposure. More than half of that amount will go toward the children younger than 6 — whose age put them at greatest risk for lead poisoning and the physical damage and neurological problems that can result.

Between 18,000 and 20,000 children and adolescents lived in Flint during the water crisis, officials have estimated.

“The kids in Flint at every turn have been unnecessarily victimized by the circumstances of their life, poverty, a government that was dishonest with them,” said Corey M. Stern, the lead counsel for plaintiffs in the settlement, which encompasses multiple lawsuits and cases filed against the state.

“This is a crescendo moment,” he added, reflecting on the many obstacles that delayed justice. “To these kids, there’s been a hell of a lot of losses. And I don’t know of many wins . . . [but] this is a big win for them, and it’s beyond the money. It’s what it says.”

The remaining 20 percent of the payments will go to plaintiffs whose lawsuits pertained to other issues, such as property damage and loss of revenue.

The deal follows 18 months of negotiations involving four attorneys acting on behalf of Flint residents and businesses, and court-appointed mediators overseen by U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy. Talks escalated greatly in recent months amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Stern, the amounts awarded to each child will vary. The negotiating team constructed a grid with categories of claimants, with each category then broken into empirical levels of harm as determined by blood-lead tests and other data. The final total will depend on the number of children covered; before the announcement, 7,500 had legal representation.

“I do not think every kid should be treated equally, because not every kid is injured equally,” Stern said.

Florlisa Fowler, a mother of three who lives on Flint’s northeast side, learned of the agreement Wednesday evening through conversations and early news reports. As details emerged, some people were excited and energized, others dissatisfied. Fowler found herself on both sides.

“I was like, ‘Well, at least it’s something,’ ” she said Thursday. “And that’s kind of sad that we think that way because we’re worth so much more, but at least it gives some people hope.”

Even amid her skepticism, though, she felt relief. Her daughter was 12 at the time of the crisis, and tests detected lead poisoning. Now 17, the girl has cognitive issues as well as gastrointestinal problems that have been attributed to her lead exposure.

The debacle began when Flint stopped drawing its water from Lake Huron and switched to the Flint River. But state officials failed to ensure that corrosion-control treatments were added to the new water supply. Without them, rust, iron and lead leached from the city’s aging pipes and contaminated the drinking water of homes and businesses.

Residents started complaining of discolored and foul-smelling water and then worse — skin rashes after bathing — but their concerns were largely ignored.

Among some children tested in 2015 at a local hospital, the percentage with lead poisoning doubled after the switch in water sources. In some neighborhoods, it tripled. Rather than prompting immediate action, the test results were questioned, and the pediatrician who tried to highlight them was harshly criticized.

When the city and state finally responded, forced in part by the federal Environmental Protection Agency invoking its emergency powers, a massive effort got underway to distribute bottled water and water filters throughout Flint. Snyder told residents in a State of the State address that “government failed you at the federal, state and local level.”

Former lawmaker Phil Phelps (D) represented Flint at the height of the disaster and led legislative efforts to secure recovery funding for the city and accountability from state officials. On Thursday, he was struggling with a mix of emotions.

“There is no amount of money that’s going to be able to reverse the damage caused to the mental and physical health of Flint residents,” said Phelps, who worries legal fees will leave many children lacking.

Although officials have declared the crisis over and Flint’s drinking water no longer a health hazard, residents say they have little trust in what comes out of their taps. Most continue to use bottled water.

A criminal investigation by the Michigan attorney general’s office continues. Felony charges initially were filed against more than half a dozen local and state officials, but last year those were dismissed and the probe restarted.

Thursday’s announcement is just one facet of the city’s recovery. Since 2015, Flint has received tens of millions of dollars in state and federal funding to repair its devastated water system. More than 25,000 lead service lines have been removed and replaced to date. Roughly 5,000 more lines still need to be dug up.

And in her statement, Whitmer touted additional programs and aid. The state’s current budget allocated $120 million to water infrastructure investments aimed at cleaning up the city’s drinking water, and the upcoming budget will direct millions more to support various programs, including nutrition, health care and early childhood services.

Yet the financial settlement comes at a particularly timely moment as the country grapples with the impacts of systemic racism, exposed not just by the coronavirus pandemic but by the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans during encounters with police.

“Flint is everything that people are out protesting about,” said Stern, who represents some 2,600 young plaintiffs there. “Flint is a microcosm of what our most underserved communities look like, and one of the reasons why the crisis reached the level it did was because people weren’t listening to the voices of those in Flint.”

Melissa Mays, a mother who became one of the most outspoken in demanding state compensation for the community, is feeling a measure of vindication.

“Today is day 2,309 since they switched our water and took away our clean water,” she noted Thursday. “So it’s a very, very long fight, and we have to keep telling ourselves we matter. This is what’s right.”