My Experience with the Water Crisis in Flint – Karen Eaton

This is a journal of my personal journey with the water crisis in Flint. I’ve lived in Flint since 2000 and have been a member of Woodside Church in Flint since 1992. I’ve moved around a fair amount in my life, but now Flint is home. My life here is full of friends and rich experiences.

During the winter of 2013-2014 our Outreach and Social Action Committee at Woodside Church was busy working on the water affordability issue. Our water rates in Flint were high, my monthly bill for one person was $120-$140 and I don’t have a pool nor do I water my lawn. Our Committee was concerned about our Flint neighbors who were getting their water shut off for lack of payment. Our local newspaper was reporting people were being charged and prosecuted for stealing water. We at Woodside held community information meetings with our Civic leaders and joined a march with Detroit activists to demonstrate that water is a human right, not a commodity. We were advocating that everyone needs affordable water and that water was a vital service to our community, not a way for a corporation or government to make money. At this point, our Emergency Manager, appointed by the Governor, had decided that Flint would no longer use the water from the Detroit water system. Instead, to save money, we would get our water from the Flint River until we were hooked up to the new pipe line from Lake Huron. Almost immediately, we started hearing from angry, scared people that their water smelled, tasted and looked funny. My water seemed fine and local and state “water experts” kept saying the water was safe. Our mayor even drank water at a press conference. I went to dozens of meetings and protests. I was trying to understand what was going on. People were really upset about their water, but our officials insisted that the water was safe. I was still mostly concerned about the affordability of water. Fortunately for all of us, two moms didn’t give up. They knew their children were harmed by the water and although they had been told their families were isolated cases, they didn’t believe it. They came to meetings at Woodside and seemed credible, but the Michigan DEQ and our mayor said the water was safe. I wasn’t sure what to think. I wasn’t sick and my water seemed fine.

During the fall of 2014 Dr. Edwards from Virginia Tech University got involved. He and his students responded to a call from one of the moms and began testing Flint’s water correctly. Dr. Edwards told us the city wasn’t using good testing procedures. Woodside Church was a testing distribution site for Virginia Tech and I did a test of my water. A month or so later I, along with many other citizens, got a call from Dr. Edward’s team. My water was at a level 9. Not awful, the FDA action level is 15, but I was advised I should put a filter on my faucet because no amount of lead is safe. So I did get a filter. Many of my neighbors had much higher levels of lead, 128 to 250 were some of the numbers. I was lucky. When Dr. Edwards gave his report of seriously high levels of lead in our water he was ridiculed by State DEQ officials and some in the Governor’s office. Then Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from Hurley Hospital held a press conference and reported a spike in the levels of lead in Flint children’s blood since the change in our source of water. She too was ridiculed. Then all hell broke loose. Everyone was not only paying attention, they were sending truck-loads of water and wanting their picture taken. The press was investigating as well as the Governor’s office, we elected a new mayor and celebrities were raising money and sending water. The city had mountains of bottled water everywhere and so did Woodside Church. We focused on the Hispanic community because some Hispanic people are undocumented and were afraid to go to the police stations that were originally set up to distribute water. Some churchs and people called us at Woodside and asked how they could help and were respectful of our time and needs. We felt supported and valued by many. There were others that wanted our time, to have their picture taken and generally needed us to make them feel good about their efforts. That was not helpful. That attitude was demeaning. Then we were switched back to the Detroit water system.

So where are we now? The issue remains a political football and if that helps us get the resources we need I’m okay with that. Our Community Foundation has supported programs to help our children. Most of these programs are ways to help children with nutrition, the most effective way to fight lead in blood. We had a meeting of Early Childhood Professionals to learn about our role in working through this crisis with young children. I made sure the students in my Infant Toddler class at Mott Community College understood their responsibilities in this crisis. The mayor is still working to get the water pipes replaced and has seen to it that residents were hired to distribute water, rather than paying State Police over-time to do it. Woodside has put in filtered water stations so people can refill water jugs with safe water and not need so many bottles of water. We, Woodside, have also identified three more sites in the community where we will pay for the equipment so they can do the same thing. Flint is recovering and almost has control back. Our emergency manager is gone, but fiscal matters still need to be approved by a State entity. I did my last protest in what is called a “performance protest”. About 15 of us, all women, dressed in white jump suits with red paint splattered on them laid down on the steps of the water plant while a woman who miscarried during the crisis told her story. We wanted to call attention to that part of the crisis that wasn’t being told or resourced. The plant manager kept saying we were “trespassing on public property.” Really? She called the police and when they ignored her, she tried calling Home Land Security and the FBI. We were there for 15 minutes and I have to say her threats were pretty scary for this old white lady. Mostly what I am left with is a confusion of feelings. I’ve never felt hurt from elected officials before. Anger yes, but not hurt. I know we were ignored because officials saw angry black people, in their minds when they were working on the issue. These people that weren’t behaving like middle class white people. Officials just wanted protesters to go away, be discredited. I’m certain that if complaints had come from a white community, that officials felt had influence, this never would have happened. But it did happen. It happened to people, children and a community I love. Officials, whose jobs were to protect public health, lied and falsified documents. I have experienced just a teensy bit of racism. I can’t imagine what that kind of dismissal is like for everything you do and are. I have also had many show genuine support and caring both for me and my community. I’ve seen people work hard for good solutions and met terrific men and women along the way. I’ve also lost some of my naiveté about people. I still believe government is one important avenue for us all to use to work for the common good. But we all must be responsible for holding the people in power’s feet to the fire.

Flint is my home and I am grateful that it is.

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