If you've been following the news, even casually, over the past several months, you're likely aware of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
The situation in Flint continues to be dire. In January, a state of emergency was declared at the state and federal level.
People are still unable to use their water for anything. What's more, nothing substantial is being done by those responsible to address the root of the problem.
If you're not familiar with what led to this crisis, here's a quick summary:
In 2014, the water supply in Flint was switched from Detroit to the Flint River to cut costs. Consequently, the water became contaminated with lead from old pipelines after not being properly treated.
It was immediately apparent something was wrong with the water, but state and local officials assured people the water was safe.
More evidence mounted that the water was poisonous, but the government continued to deny anything was wrong.
The water was extremely discolored and began to make people very sick.
Lead poisoning is very serious, especially for children -- it's linked to cognitive and behavioral problems among other health issues.
Eventually, after much public outcry and the involvement of academics and other experts, the government acknowledged the water was unsafe and admitted its complicity (to an extent). There have been widespread calls for Governor Rick Snyder to resign.
Amid all this, the water supply in Flint was switched back to Detroit, but this doesn't change the fact the pipes in Flint need to be replaced to make drinking and using the water safe again.
It's clear what needs to be done to solve this problem, but the government continues to stall even though it's largely responsible for poisoning the water in Flint. Meanwhile, an entire American community is living without life's most basic necessity.
This situation is sad, infuriating and a national embarrassment.
In early April, Elite Daily traveled to Flint to get a first-hand look at the situation.
During that time, the local sheriff, Robert J. Pickell, took some time to speak with us about the current situation, what needs to be done and what Americans across the country can do to help.
The sheriff told us Flint has never faced a crisis on this scale,
This crisis is the biggest, not only in the 17 years that I've been the sheriff but in the entire time I've been in Flint since 1964. What's sad about it is that it was created by man. It wasn't created by a natural disaster – people created it.
Before the water crisis, Flint was already struggling with poverty and crime. From 2010 to 2012, it was ranked the most violent city in the US, and it continues to contend with these issues. In other words, it's particularly tragic the water crisis occurred in Flint given it was already a fairly downtrodden city.
When we asked the sheriff whether the water crisis has exacerbated crime in Flint, he said,
The crime rate in Flint has always, at least for the past 10 to 15 years, been high. [Flint] is number one per capita in violent crime and overall crime… So it's hard to tell. [Flint] is a tough place. We lost our jobs. [Flint] used to be a great manufacturing town. It employed 80,000 people – General Motors – now it employs maybe six or seven thousand. [There's] unemployment, nothing to do and a lot of drinking and drug use.
For all of these reasons and more, the sheriff told us his office was at the forefront of the relief effort when the water crisis climaxed and a state of emergency was declared. But he was careful to highlight it's the victims who are doing the most to address what's happened, even though they aren't responsible. He said,
As soon as the emergency declaration was declared I mobilized all of my reserve deputies -- volunteers… We started going door-to-door and delivering water and filters and helping people who were vulnerable or disabled to put the filters on. We did that for a period of time. So I think we played a significant role… When I say significant, it's a small role compared to what the problem is. The people who are really playing the biggest role are the victims, the people who live out in the community.
It's difficult to comprehend why this crisis hasn't been properly addressed. A state of emergency was declared months ago, and Flint has received widespread media attention -- a presidential debate was even held there.
But in the words of the sheriff, that was just political theater. As he put it,
I haven't seen [the presidential candidates] since they left that day. They haven't come back, they haven't checked, they haven't called me. They moved on to the next state to try and get the next vote…
Indeed, it seems as though the crisis in Flint got its two-week media cycle, and now everyone has moved on. Meanwhile, the community is left to deal with this situation, as those responsible for the crisis continue to delay.
Flint is a microcosm of the US at the moment: The poorest people, particularly those who are minorities, are being oppressed and ignored by the powerful. If people are wondering why we're having such a chaotic presidential election, perhaps they should take a look at Flint.
In the sheriff's words,
It seems like it's all of the working people, the labor unions, the poor folks who are taking care of people… This [water crisis] is government at its worst. This is why guys like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are taking a foothold because people have lost confidence in the capacity of government to deal with the problems. And when there is a problem, they lie about it -- they hide it. Come to Flint and you'll see [why Americans are so angry]… The people of the city Flint were paying these huge water bills, and they were paying for poison.
The water crisis in Flint will not get solved until they remove and replace all of the lead service lines. This could cost around $55 million.
But the sheriff explained it will likely take a while for this to happen because the government of Michigan seems to be more concerned with numbers than with people. He said,
I know what [the state government is] doing… They're sitting over there in Lansing and they're scratching their heads and saying, 'How can we do this and get away cheaply?' And that's the problem in the first place… They put dictators into Flint -- they called them emergency managers. [The governor] pulled our mayor, and put in this emergency manager… These emergency managers, in effect, are dictators. They don't owe anything to the voter, they don't owe anything to the city council, there's no checks and balances. One of the emergency managers [switched our water supply] to the Flint River without all of the safeguards being built in… Now they're pointing fingers at each other. The lesson has to be you can't take government away from the people… Maybe Flint was going into the hole, and there was a large deficit… But don't send in a dictator, send in people to work with the people. Help, give guidance, mentor. That's what should've been done. And the other problem is, as I see it, when you're poor, and it doesn't matter [what race you are] – you don't have a political voice, and that's what happened here.
This is precisely why the sheriff said it's so important for Americans around the country to continue to pay attention to this crisis and spread the word. He also asked people to send any money they can to local charities.
As we were saying goodbye to the sheriff, he told us one final story about a time he and his officers were out handing out water and filters.
We were going door-to-door... We go to this one house, and as I'm walking up I'm seeing the windows are broken. We knock on the door, and we have water and filters with us. This woman comes out, a young mom probably in her late 20s, and you would've thought we were the second coming. And we're [just] giving her water and filters. [The mother] grabs me and hugs me… And I'm thinking to myself, 'Wow, this is how bad it is.' I look over and there's these little babies, maybe 3 and 4 years old, and they've got blankets on [and they're] shaking. And I'm thinking, 'This is America?! And we're giving money to Iraq… and Afghanistan, and ?! That's bullsh*t!' I've said enough.
Indeed, it's hard to stomach the fact this is happening in an American community in 2016, but it is and we can't afford to ignore it.