"They Killin' Us Off": This Is What the People of Flint Have to Say to the World
There hasn't been clean water in Onquette Woodyard's house — or any house in Flint, Michigan — in over a year. Every day, Woodyard gets up and drives down Martin Luther King Avenue, an arrow of cracked asphalt punctuated by slouching houses that appears to stretch to the horizon. Woodyard's destination is Fire Station No. 3, where she'll get a single case of water from the Michigan National Guardsmen. That case is Woodyard's drinking water, her cooking water and her bathing water for the day — because the water coming out of her pipes could sicken and kill her.
Flint, a city of roughly 100,000 people, is in the midst of a health crisis so severe that 10 people have died from a pneumonia-like condition called Legionnaires' disease. So severe that residents are reporting hair loss, blistered skin, skyrocketing blood pressure and worse. Photos of murky hospital water are going viral. Animals are drinking lead-infested water and veterinarians can't do much about it.
On Jan. 16, President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency. Three days later, protesters descended on the Michigan State Capitol building to demand Gov. Rick Snyder's resignation. Snyder called in the military to help out. Flint became a trendy celebrity cause: Cher sent thousands of bottles of water, Pearl Jam dusted off its flannel to spearhead a fundraiser and Meek Mill spun water donation into a pissing contest with rapper 50 Cent.
Thanks to donations, public and otherwise, schools and hospitals won't be running out of water soon. But according to Flint residents, the media attention makes their home look like a third-world country, a tiny, lifeless roadside attraction somewhere between Detroit and the Pacific Ocean.
"They give the perception that we're a poor, unprideful city," Woodyard, 45, told Mic about the country's perception of the place she calls home. "Pretty much everybody lives at what they consider a poverty level. But we still have pride, and we deserve what everyone else deserves, no matter what they think about us."
"The water is horrible here. They killin' us off." — Quazawndria McGhee
In 2013, Flint announced a cost-cutting measure: It would stop buying water from Detroit and, instead, transition to the upcoming pipeline from the Karegnondi Water Authority, which would pull water from Lake Huron. Flint cut ties with Detroit before the pipeline could be finished and was left with a two-year gap between water services. An emergency city manager came on board to find a solution. By April 2014, Flint's pipes filled up with Flint River water, a source widely known in the community to be toxic, and which Gov. Snyder knew to be corrosive.
Seven months later, Flint issued boil-water advisories after finding fecal coliform bacteria, a common bacteria you'd usually find in animal digestive tracts, in the water. It didn't help. Boiling water actually concentrates lead levels, according to NYC Environmental Protection.
Quazawndria McGhee and Cameron Hall had to start heating up bottles of water to bathe their infant children after both started to break out from faucet-drawn baths. "It seems like the government is trying to go out [to other countries] trying to help people," McGhee told Mic outside Mott Children's Health Center on Monday, Jan. 18. "But what about us right in front of y'all? The water is horrible here. They killin' us off."
"This is beyond a disaster. It's criminal." — Karla Muhammed
Standing in front of a bus to the Michigan State Capitol building, where protesters later gathered to demand Snyder's resignation, Karla Muhammed, who moved to Flint in 1983, showed Mic the scars and blisters on her neck. She wakes up in the middle of the night when the raised areas rub against her pillow, she said. In the freezing Michigan weather, only her neck and hands were visible, but she said the breakouts go down her back and extremities.
"This has been going on a lot longer than what they've been saying," Muhammed told Mic, referring to the government's warnings about water problems. "If [General Motors] was saying they didn't want the water [in 2014] because it was corroding engine parts, then what is it doing to us? This is beyond a disaster. It's criminal."
"Kids would play in the hydrants. They would drink the water. They didn't know their lives were at risk." — Kenneth McCloud
Fifty years ago, Flint was booming. In the middle and late 20th century, Flint was a supercharged engine of industrial revolution, the birthplace of General Motors' Buick and Chevrolet divisions. It wasn't until the turn of the century that factories began closing up and moving to Detroit. According to the United States Census Bureau, by the end of 2013, almost half of Flint's residents lived below the poverty level.
"You'd be surprised how many people don't have phones or TVs," Kenneth McCloud, a longtime Flint resident, told Mic Tuesday. He recalled when, over the summer, the city would flush fire hydrants to get rid of the junk in the pipes. "Kids would play in the hydrants. They would drink the water. They didn't know their lives were at risk. I want people outside of Flint to know there are health issues. Our children are going to school with bad rashes and stomach aches."
The Guardsmen handing out water can't get sleep
Outside Fire Station No. 3 the morning of Monday, Jan. 18, National Guardsmen, cases of water balanced on either shoulder, escorted elderly women to their Buicks. Only half of the lights in the station work, making the buzzcuts of soldiers cast long shadows while they handed out water filters in exchange for residents' addresses.
In a back room, Private Marsh, a baby-faced kid carrying tired suitcases under his eyes from being awake 36 hours, manned an iPad. His job is to take addresses and plug them into a mapping program, turning them into red dots on a map of the city, showing the National Guard where the station's visitors are coming from.
"That's a lot of people affected," Marsh said, pointing on his screen to a bright red glob in the northern end of the city. "It's devastating."
The Michigan National Guard allows residents one case of water per day. Sgt. Ryan Griswold told Mic there's some flexibility for large families and the elderly, but Guardsmen have to watch out for "water hoarders."
For large families, one case a day isn't enough. Onquette Woodyard, who lives with her extended family, goes through 30 to 35 cases a month.
"If families go to other stations each day" to get more water, "that's fine," Griswold said. "If they need it, they need it. We had a guy who probably got two pallets of water in two days. I think someone spotted him trying to sell it."
The 70 Guardsmen don't know what's going to happen. Staff Sgt. Tom Vega, who was walking around the station taking pictures of his soldiers passing out water, employs the military mantra "first to go, last to know." Though Vega and his men had been in Flint for four days, he hadn't been given any instructions about when they could leave, he told Mic.
The uncertainty makes residents nervous. Because while they wait for answers, they're still paying hundreds a month for Flint's poisoned water.
"We have to take money out of our food stamps to go buy water." — Debra Lewis
At Mr. B's Foodland in north Flint, the parking lot is empty except for three cars. A bottle of Faygo Cherry Cola sits on top of a broken drinking fountain: grim commentary on a dire situation.
"There's a lot of low-income people here, paying a whole lot of money for something they can't even use," Debra Lewis, who was shopping at Mr. B's, told Mic. "We have to take money out of our food stamps to go buy water, and we shouldn't have to." Lewis said she appreciates the assistance from the government, but with no concrete timeline on the city's support measures put in place, she has no idea when the water donations will end.
Flint residents told Mic that water prices rose even in their local groceries. Anecdotally, gas station clerks noticed a rise in soda purchases. "We have one can that's $0.49," a clerk at a Marathon gas station, who asked to remain anonymous, told Mic. "That's cheaper than any of our water."
Every day, new evidence of incompetence leaks to the public. On Thursday, Susan Hedman, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator for Flint, resigned after admitting her agency didn't tell the people of Flint about the danger they're in.
Emails released Wednesday showed conversations about the problems dating back to February 2015. Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality cited an "optimized system" to take care of it, but according to an excerpt from Snyder's emails, that system didn't include corrosion control, which is a chief concern when you combine a salty river with old, deteriorating lead pipes. It was like if the TSA tried to stifle firearms on planes with scanners that don't screen for metal.
"They knew. They let us continue drinking it, and now people are dying." — Artina Buggs
Outside of Fire Station 6, Artina Buggs grabbed as much water as she could to bring to her grandparents, who are in their 80s.
For the last few months, Buggs, 30, has gotten a water bill with an "E" next to her balance. The E stands for estimate. "They aren't sending workers out to read the meters," Buggs told Mic. "How you gonna think I'm using this much water? They sent me a bill for $175. That's not right. You can't just predict what I'm using."
As early as fall 2015, Buggs said, yellow, sometimes brown water that smelled like actual shit was coming out of her neighbors' pipes. And even now, though the water is clear, Buggs says she can't shower without getting severely itchy.
"They said it was safe to shower, they said it was safe to bathe," Buggs told Mic. "Then they said just boil the water. Then they said it wasn't safe to boil the water. But they knew. They knew two years ago. They let us continue drinking it, and now people are dying. They're trying to kill us all off and brush it under the rug to save their jobs."
The kids "try to put lemon in it to make it taste a little better." — Tyrone Wooten
The young people of Flint turn away from water entirely — or at least, experiment with it. "A lot of kids are drinking more pop and making up water as they go along," resident Tyrone Wooten told Mic. "They get the water out of the sink, boil it, then try to put lemon in it to make it taste a little better."
Other residents have taken matters into their own hands. Joe and Shirley Love, two lifelong residents, put in a powerful drinking-water filtration system a few years ago. When they learned their water was poisonous, they put filters on their tub and shower too.
Michael Moore "should keep his opinions to himself." — Joe Love
"I lived right across the street from the Flint River as a kid," Joe Love told Mic. "There was a time that along that river, wouldn't even a lilypad grow. It used to be red, there was so much dirt and sludge in it."
Joe Love sees his neighbors up in arms about the problems in his city. He knows director Michael Moore, who was born in Flint, has called the problems in Flint a version of racial genocide. But he won't pick up his pitchfork.
"I love Michael, he's a cool dude, but Michael should keep his opinions to himself," Love told Mic. "If he wanna join with the people trying to find a solution, let's fix it. I don't know how old Michael is, but you got to grow up and find a solution to this problem we got."
Love's diplomatic views are a bloom of positivity in a city where the feeling of pessimism and hopelessness is palpable. But good cheer is hard to come by in Flint, and for good reason: Loved ones are dead. Illness is tearing apart families. Children, and generations to come, risk irreparable brain damage and emotional imbalances for the rest of their lives. And as far as any government body can tell, with an estimated $1.5 billion price tag on repairing the pipes of Flint, none of that is going to let up anytime soon.
Maybe outrage is the right answer. Because if we aren't furious, Flint will happen again.