FLINT, Mich. — For Hillary Clinton, the city hosting Sunday’s Democratic debate is a place whose “children were poisoned by toxic water because their governor wanted to save a little money” — but also, she declared on Super Tuesday, “a community that’s been knocked down but refused to be knocked out.”
But while Flint and its lead-contaminated drinking water have become almost a sacred cause among national Democratic leaders, residents of its hardest-hit neighborhoods say they’ve seen little benefit from the political spotlight shining on them. That includes Clinton’s own visit to the city early last month, when she declared that “what happened in Flint is immoral.”
Story Continued Below
“Hillary came, it was pure show,” said Katrina Crater, a volunteer at Joy Tabernacle Church in Flint’s blighted Civic Park neighborhood. “Playing up for the cameras — I understand that. But what comes next?”
“Flint is just living through this like it lived through everything else,” said Noah Patton, one of the church’s pastors, whose 3-year-old daughter has tested positive for lead poisoning. “But we need more than bottled water and reporters.”
A look at the lives of Flint’s residents reveals a city whose economic and social problems, following decades of job losses that have left homes and factories vacant, lie well beyond any easy political fixes — even before a cost-cutting move by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration caused a surge in lead levels in the community’s drinking water. Eighteen months after the contamination began, and five months after state officials finally acknowledged the problem, people here say they are still largely on their own.
At Joy Tabernacle, volunteers are bringing in bottles of water, but many residents don’t have cars to haul them home. Others, including Patton, can’t legally drive their lead-poisoned children to the doctor thanks to a state law that imposed thousands of dollars in fees for traffic offenses.
With human assistance faltering, the senior pastor at the nearly century-old church turned to divine intervention last weekend.
“I declare you healed from whatever damage may have been done by the lead,” the Rev. Robert McCathern said, hands raised heavenward, after calling the congregation’s children to a makeshift pulpit for a blessing. The Sunday services took place in the basement, because the church’s roof collapsed in 2012 and the congregation still can’t afford to fix it.
“I am not an angry black man,” McCathern said in an interview. “I’m very patriotic. I believe in our country. But I’m so close to saying what Jeremiah Wright said: ‘Goddamn America.’ It’s because our children are dying and America is following Donald Trump.”
State and federal leaders have promised more help is on the way: Snyder has sent in the National Guard to distribute water, won an expansion of Medicaid for children up to age 21 and pregnant women, and pushed the Republican-controlled state legislature to provide money to help pay residents’ water bills and provide medical support. Congress is debating an $850 million federal-state aid package for Flint and other troubled water systems — though that’s been delayed by objections from Republican senators, including presidential contender Ted Cruz of Texas.
But the water crisis is hitting a city that was already ill-equipped to handle any additional burdens, saddled with a 40 percent poverty rate, a tax base that has shrunk by half since the 2008 financial crisis, and a dwindling population that has left nearly one-quarter of Flint’s private parcels in the hands of a nonprofit land bank. Attempts to fix the city’s fiscal straits have further worsened problems for residents, who pay some of the nation’s highest utility rates for water that’s now unsafe to drink.
“Everyone who could leave has left,” said Doug Weiland, executive director of the Genesee County Land Bank, which takes ownership of properties that have been lost to foreclosure because of delinquent taxes.
Experts say it may cost as much as $1.5 billion to replace all of Flint’s lead-lined pipes, one of the most drastic potential remedies for the crisis. That’s on top of the medical attention and extra schooling that children will require to deal with the potent neurotoxin’s effects on brain development and behavior.
The aid package being debated in Congress, as part of a wide-ranging energy bill, would provide money for water pipes across the country, with $100 million tagged specifically for Flint, as well as $50 million for federal lead poisoning programs. Cruz lifted his “soft hold” on the bill late last month, although it remains bottled up by objections from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Michigan has “all the government resources they need to fix the problem,” Lee said in a statement Friday. “The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding.”
At Joy Tabernacle, people are mainly turning to their family and neighbors for immediate help.
Last weekend, the line stretched around the block as volunteers directed traffic, loaded cars with boxes of water and fresh fruit, and pointed families to the church kitchen for blood tests. The damaged sanctuary has proven helpful during the lead crisis: With the pews relocated to the basement, the main floor has plenty of space to store the pallets of water, baby wipes and antibacterial lotion arriving daily from across the country.
But not everyone sees the bottled water as worth the trouble, Crater said — especially elderly people who have trouble lifting the heavy bottles.
“They say: ‘Honey, I’m still going to use this tap water because I’m paying for it. At my age, if I’m going to be sick, I’m going to be sick,'” said the 35-year-old volunteer, who has been hauling cases of water to ailing neighbors and families without cars.
Even worse, parents here say, are the lingering doubts about their children’s health.
Aaron Dunigan, 30, has taken his 20-month-old daughter to the hospital twice since Christmas with a virus he believes could be linked to the water.
“We question everything now,” he said, cradling his baby, Ava Grace, after Sunday services. “Before, some of this stuff we chalked up to growing up, being a baby.”
Patton, the pastor, said his own efforts to help his daughter are being hampered by past troubles with the law.
Growing up, Patton was on track for a quintessential life in the American suburbs: Dad working in the shop for General Motors, mom in the Navy. But then the 1980s crack epidemic hit and captured his mother. His dad left town, and when Patton was 15 his mother shot herself, leaving the teenager to scrap aluminum from neighborhood houses to get by.
After having his first child at age 19, Patton was shocked to discover how much diapers cost. He began selling guns. But he couldn’t seem to escape the police. “Everything I tried to do that was wrong, I got caught.”
His last prison sentence took him away from home just when his children needed him most, and when he came out he set about changing his life, turning to the church. But another of his offenses — driving without a license — left him with no license and fees that kept accumulating.
“I’m just trying to provide for my daughter,” said Patton, now 28. “She’s got lead poisoning, and I can’t drive her to the doctor because the government says I owe $6,000 in ‘responsibility fees.’”
Those hefty fees for traffic offenses, which the state created in 2003, were lucrative for the state but drew criticism as essentially a tax on the poor. Snyder signed a law two years ago to phase out those fees by 2019.
But Democrats are determined to keep the heat on Snyder, whose role in the crisis includes appointing the emergency manager who approved the fateful switch to the corrosive Flint River as the city’s drinking water source.
Clinton has made the city’s lead troubles a frequent refrain in her campaign speeches, and is running ads with Mayor Karen Weaver and other community leaders. After sweeping the South’s heavily African-American states on Super Tuesday, Clinton ended her victory speech by turning to Flint, condemning Snyder while praising plumbers, students and United Auto Workers members who have stepped up to help.
Although he has given less prominence to Flint, Democratic rival Bernie Sanders has gone further in calling for Snyder to step down.
“The dereliction of duty to this community has been so extraordinary that I think in good conscience he should resign,” Sanders said on a visit to a Flint church last month.
Some residents are planning their own departures, thanks to the federal tax refunds that people here often use to repay loans from relatives or pay down delinquent water and electric bills. This year, some say they plan to take the cash directly to a car dealership to buy a used vehicle to carry them out of town.
But at Joy Tabernacle, congregants say they aren’t going anywhere.
“The water situation just got put on a list of survival skills,” Patton said. “At least we didn’t mess it up this time — we didn’t not pay the water bill.”