4/24: 5 Years Later: A Postcard from Flint

“Tap water used to be the best cold water you could get, and I haven’t dranken it in years. I probably never will,” my aunt Priscilla “Suzie Q” Wallace says as she remembers what water in Flint, Michigan used to be like before the continuing five-year scandal, infamously known as the Flint Water Crisis, poisoned constituents. “It’s all about bottled water from here on out. I don’t care if they have fixed the problem. I just don’t trust the city.”

I am here with my extended family in a city that can feel as if the rest of the country has forgotten it. Five years ago, Flint residents and officials discovered that there were unusually high lead levels in the city’s water due to switching the water from a Detroit source to unfiltered  Flint River water. Since then, there has been remediation such as city-provided filters and vitamin supplements. But the fears—and the reality of toxicity—linger.

“There’s a level of trickery going on with [the mayor],” states Aleta “Aunt Nina” Arthur— a thought that seems to percolate through the minds of every resident. The level of distrust and frustration that exists between city residents and the local and state government could cut through pipes.

In 2014, then Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s administration opted to change the city’s water source from the stable Detroit water reservoirs to the historically contaminated and undrinkable Flint River, according to CNN.  The corrosive river water eroded the aging pipe infrastructure throughout the city, which led to lead poisoning. The crisis, inhabitants and experts both say, isn’t a water issue but an infrastructure issue. As one put it, “all the problems that we have are [either] money or color.” Many believe that because Flint is over 50% Black and 40% of the city lives below the poverty line, the constant oversights and lack of action by the government is yet another example of systemic racism and classism operating at its unfortunate finest. Ultimately, the effects of lead consumption are abominable, including complications with the heart, kidneys, nerves, impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty.

I’m a junior at Brown University, but I am originally from Flint Township, Michigan and am linked to the city by kin. I am a middle class Black woman with the majority of my extended family living in Flint, which is where both of my parents were born and raised — my father in poverty and my mother too, for portions of her life. They fought as first generation college kids to give my sister — a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate and MD/PhD student at the University of North Carolina—and I the luxuries we have enjoyed. Unfortunately, my extended family and the city at large do not have the same social, educational or monetary access to skills or benefits that I do as a student who is away at an Ivy League school. I’ve followed The Crisis for some time now and with this year being the 5th anniversary of the contamination, I am committed to reminding the world of Flint’s plight.

This is the Flint Water Crisis. This is the cost of infecting a city for five years.

I rarely make it back home anymore as a college student of the east coast, so seeing throwbacks at my great-grandmother’s 90th birthday is pure joy. Grams is the one person in the family who can bring together every corner of my relatives regardless of the cyclical drama forever plaguing conversations, babies being born, or folks passing away ahead of their time. At the birthday celebration, there are easily one hundred people in the room all wearing purple, gold, white or black, Grams’ favorite colors. A purple corsage neatly decorates her wrist, complimenting an all white suit. But all is not as happy as it should be on such a felicitous occasion. The event was held in the city, so the water haunted us as we grabbed bottles to quench thirst — that is, until we ran out of bottles.

“I think some of my pipes got replaced in the yard, but a lot of them were still good. But after so long, my confidence level in [the city] telling me everything was okay wasn’t working because of the stories I was hearing about everyone having issues with their health,” Deborah “Onnie” Brown, 69. Although, her cheekbones depict a much younger age. She lived on the East side for the entirety of The Crisis before relocating to the Township this past August. Onnie is my maternal grandmother and the self-titled favorite grandmother in my life.  She put in over thirty years as a state social worker and now enjoys retirement with her loving husband of almost twenty years. She looks flawless at the party, as usual, in purple and gold as we chat with a Gerald Levert song starting up in the background.

Everyone’s sitting around the ballroom, chilling, when Aunt Q joins my table. Onnie is her older sister and between the two of them, it’s hard to tell who’s the most fashionable. They are both as southern as northern bells can be. Aunt Q’s silver hair is curled to perfection and tucked behind her square glasses. Gee, no one would believe that she is 68, I think to myself as Levert sings about all his love for a woman. We can relate. The last time I visited Aunt Q, we went to her home near the intersection of Myrtle and Sterling streets, which is considered the North side of the City of Flint. Currently, there are two children under the age of twelve living with Aunt Q and she is their legal guardian. I remember her walking my immediate family and I to her basement. Every wall, ceiling to floor, was stacked with cases of water. When asked, Aunt Q says that she hasn’t had water like that in years because the city doesn’t give it out anymore.

While the pipes in her house remain compromised, she is still obligated to pay her water bill. “Matter of fact,” she starts, “my water bill is basically the same every month. And I still don’t drink it or cook with it, but I will wash up with it.”

Clinical Therapist Recco S. Richardson, Ph.D., LPC, who happens to be my father, has also noticed a difference during his counseling sessions. “Some children, age five to seven, exposed to lead come to sessions with more [difficulty] focusing in school, [they are] irritable, easily anger[ed] and lack the ability to self-regulate in comparison to kids in their same age group who were not exposed to lead.”

At the party, I also talk to Aunt Nina, one of Grams’ eldest grandchildren at 50 years of age and my mom’s older sister. Immediately, after diving right into her thoughts on the Flint Water Crisis, I can see life leaving her body as she sighs deeply, presumably, in exhaustion. This particular conversation always has a way of ruining even the most celebratory moments. Aunt Nina is small in stature but has earned the nickname “Mighty Mouse” because of her consistent workout routine and uberly cut muscles that come in handy as a natural hairdresser who frequently uses them to tame tangled curls.

Aunt Nina lives on the North side near the intersection of Martin Luther King Ave and West Gracelawn Ave with her eldest daughter Markena and her two grandchildren under the age of three. No one in her household drinks or cooks with the tap water, but will use it to shower, brush teeth, etc. Every tap does have a city provided filter.

“I was not one that had water so bad that it was brown. My water was extremely decent. I never broke out. God covered my water.“

And because water is no longer being donated at the frequency it once was towards the beginning of the crisis, Aunt Nina keeps a listening ear out for any churches giving away water… typically, there’s always one. Aunt Nina pretty much lives off that supply. Otherwise, she is purchasing cases of water from grocery stores and relying on city provided filters, which are still being provided regularly.

I wanted to talk to the officials who are now responsible for this mess. I called and wrote to the office of Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, but her office has not responded. They should be doing better. According to ABC12, however, Flint was recently granted a loan from the state worth $77.7 million with a 0% interest rate and 100% forgiveness on the principal— which effectively makes the dollars a grant. These funds are from a $100 million promise years ago that is just now delivering and will go towards completion of a pipeline hooking up to a secondary water source, improvements to the Dort and Cedar Street Reservoir and Pump Station, various water main replacement work and other water projects.

All of the stated realistic, dangerous side effects of lead exposure can also have psychological impacts, especially on children. Research shows that, additionally, lead affects portions of the prefrontal lobe of the brain, which is the region responsible for development, says Dr. Richardson.

I also talked to Jessyca Mathews, an English teacher at my alma mater Carman-Ainsworth High School who is the 2019 Michigan Regional Teacher of the Year – it’s telling that she’s one of the few teachers in the Flint Township-based school district who lives in Flint. She has been working with education leaders to create rectifying steps for children cognitively impaired by lead exposure who are currently held to the exact same standardized testing.

In addition to education, a return to normalcy seems so far away: “If kids are five years old or younger, they will never know the normalcy of just playing in a bathtub, just turning on the tap, running through the sprinklers [or] drinking out the [water] hose in the back,” Mathews utters, a stark reality of the Flint Water crisis.

This is the Flint Water crisis. Today, it is five years too long.

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