If you really want to disrupt people’s lives in a fundamental way — not to mention endanger their health — it’s hard to think of a better way to do it than by contaminating their drinking water supply with lead.
I kept having that thought today when I spent the morning walking a neighborhood in Flint, knocking on doors and handing out bottled water and water filters to residents affected by lead poisoning in the city’s water system.
Coworkers and I organized a team of 17 volunteers drive up for half of the day and volunteer with the American Red Cross. We joined a handful of other volunteers who worked for GM.
The outpouring of support is encouraging, certainly. Our group included a woman who had flown in the day before from New Jersey — the Flint water crisis was big news even in New York City area, she explained, and she had never been to Michigan before anyway. We were told to follow a truck driven by two regular Red Cross volunteers, who had been dispatched from Minnesota and North Carolina. A supervisor had come up from Ohio, where she apparently worked for the state.
We were assigned to a neighborhood of modest single-family homes on the city’s west side. Most appeared inhabited, though some were abandoned, boarded up and blighted. “Beware of Dog” and “No Trespassing” signs were common; many added warnings that violators “will be shot.” Blinds were drawn in windows, and sidewalks and stoops were mostly not shoveled of snow. This is a neighborhood turned in on itself, a place of deep suspicion and mistrust.
One of the official Red Cross volunteers, who lived in Mankato, Minn., told a colleague that “Everywhere I go on these things, it’s always poor people who are affected. We never go to rich areas. Those people don’t need our help.”
Not surprisingly, given the late morning hour, many people weren’t home. Others, I suspect, either didn’t want to come to the door or couldn’t, being elderly. No doubt people are sick of the glaring spotlight after being ignored for so long. After a block of no-answers, I devised a new method: knock on the door and shout “Red Cross! Free water!” It seemed to help with the response rate.
Many of the people who opened their doors offered up clues to a host of social ills, including suspected drug use, poor dental hygiene and overall health. I saw plenty of young children, and I wondered about them. One woman told me the contaminated tap water gave her a rash that forced her to take a leave of absence from a job she had held for five years while she sought medical attention. She ended up losing the job. Her grandson played inside, but she said they have mostly been drinking only bottled water. Her 17-year-old son has cancer. “I’ve got to be really careful with the water with him,” she said.
Another man, who spoke with a thick accent that I would peg as African, told me things were “hectic” since the crisis arose as he took a case of water from my arms.
Still another, a cigarette dangling from his lips, complained that he was paying a lot of money each month to his landlord for water he couldn’t use.
Everyone appeared solemnly grateful for the support. At least we weren’t there to stick microphones and TV cameras in their faces.
I feel compelled to mention that despite having their volunteering efforts under way now for weeks, organization did not appear to be a strong suit at the Red Cross volunteer center. There was confusion about the instructions given to the groups, and we wasted precious time waiting to be paired with a truck crew. Then we ran out of water and had to end our shift earlier than any of us had planned. The woman from New Jersey noted that the Red Cross could make better use of volunteers’ time by distributing tablets for data collection (instead, they have people enter data from handwritten forms).
But whatever. This is good and important and eye-opening work. The need is enormous and goes well beyond mere potable water, but it’s a start, until people go through the cases of water. I’m sure it doesn’t take long.
I do hold out hope that this crisis focuses badly needed attention on the dire need to invest in infrastructure and our crumbling cities, particularly here in the Rust Belt. I hope I’m not hoping against hope.