President Obama visited Flint, Mich., today for the first time since declaring a federal emergency in the town where the water had been contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.
"I also wanted to come here to tell you that I’ve got your back," he said this afternoon in an address at Northwestern High School, in front of a feisty audience of around 1,000 Flint residents, who booed when he mentioned that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was in the room.
Obama said he'd spent the day talking to people affected by the water crisis and wanted "to tell you directly that I see you and I hear you and I want to hear directly from you about how this public health crisis has disrupted your lives, how it's made you angry, how its made you worried."
He said the federal, state, and local governments will work together to begin replacing Flint's water system with new pipes, and reiterated that the tap water in the city is now safe to drink—if it's filtered—for adults and children over six years old. At one point Obama paused during his speech after a coughing fit to ask for a glass of filtered tap water, which he drank at the podium. "I really did need a glass of water, this is not a stunt," he said.
He said Flint's crisis was the result of "corrosive attitude" at many levels of government that lead to neglected infrastructure.
"I do not believe that anybody consciously wanted to hurt the people in Flint. And this is not the place to sort out every screw up that resulted in contaminated water. But I do think there’s a larger issue we have to acknowledge," he said. "It's a mindset that believes that less government is the highest good, no matter what. Its a mindset that says that environmental rules designed to keep your air clean or your water clean are optional or not that important."
He said that most often, that lack of public infrastructure and support ends up hurting low-income people and those without political clout. "We especially underinvest when the communities affected are poor and are not heard in the corridors of power," he said.
In April 2014, the water supply for Flint was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. Flint River water is far more corrosive, and was not treated before being pumped into the city's water supply. Lead leached into the water Flint residents used every day for drinking, cooking, and bathing–a situation that went on for 18 months before officials told residents definitively that it wasn't safe.
Obama declared a federal emergency (but, importantly, not a federal disaster) over the situation in January. That meant that the state received $5 million in federal aid, but not the higher amounts reserved for disasters.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder also met with Obama today. Last month three state officials were indicted over their handling of the crisis. And despite his apology for his administration's failure to prevent or address the crisis sooner, some locals are left questioning why Snyder hasn't been held to account.
Earlier today, Obama visited the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, went to a briefing with federal and state officials, and met with locals, including one eight-year-old girl who had written to him in March asking for a meeting.
But some were looking to the president to take more direct action to help locals financially as they continue to struggle with medical concerns. The full long-term damage the contaminated water has done is still unclear, but a doctor working with residents there said in January that up to 8,000 children under the age of 6 could have been exposed to unsafe levels of lead. Elevated lead levels can cause serious skin and liver problems, especially for children.
And the burden of dealing with those health care costs in a city with a median income of $24,834 and clearly crumbling public infrastructure is adding up, and particularly puts a burden on low-income people of color, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in February.
"People of color were disproportionately harmed, because they had an infrastructure that was older and more decrepit, because the water caused more leaching in those pipes. We know that those households were disproportionately black, brown and low-income," Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, head of the Center for Global Policy Solutions think tank.
She's been advocating for a joint federal and state relief fund for Flint residents in the aftermath of the contamination.
"What we’re looking for is a comprehensive response that includes a 9/11-style compensation fund to help restore some semblance of normalcy to the residents of Flint," she said. "It would actually provide direct compensation to the residents of Flint who have been harmed by the malfeasance of state decision makers but also by the neglect of federal decision makers who have failed to invest in the nation’s infrastructure."
Rockeymoore echoed Obama's message that this emergency is a symptom of federal and state governments over the years letting infrastructure deteriorate across the country. Obama said he saw the crisis in Flint as the "tip of the iceberg", adding that it was a basic responsibility of government to make sure people can drink water from their taps, shower in their homes, and cook for their families.
"It's self-destructive when we don't invest in our communities," he said.