By Jiquanda Johnson
Photo by Brittany Greeson
Each week Tia Simpson travels throughout the city of Flint, Michigan, to restock cases of water that sit in her living room.
It’s not uncommon to see 20 or more cases in her home. She uses the water to wash and prepare food, to brush her teeth and for daily consumption.
“This is what I have to go through every day,” she says as she washes fruit with a bottle of water at her sink. “I use at least four to six bottles of water just to cook.”
“Nobody trusts the state, I think trust would have to come from other institutions but not the state.”
Simpson, 33, lives on Flint’s south side, one of the oldest communities in Flint. There has been little to no work on her nearly 70-year-old home’s infrastructure and in 2016 the content of lead in her house was so high that it warranted a visit from the US Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy.
For an hour Murthy visited with Simpson as he examined rashes on her hands and listened to her concerns about the Flint Water Crisis.
That was two years ago and she is still plagued with rashes on her body.
“It doesn’t really heal,” says Simpson of her rashes. “They give me jars of cream but it doesn’t heal. I have a rash on my leg that won’t go away. I try to keep it covered with a bandage but it won’t go anywhere. It looks like a burn almost the size of a 50-cent piece.”
Simpson avoids hot showers and wears gloves when washing dishes.
“I can’t take hot showers,” she says. “If I do, I break out in rashes. I have a rash from my neck to the middle of my chest, down my thighs and the worst part is on my ankles and leg.”
Two years after the surgeon general visited her and on the eve of the four-year anniversary of April 25, 2014, when Flint switched its water source to the highly polluted Flint River — leading to exposure to high lead levels, bacteria, an outbreak of Legionnaires disease, and 12 confirmed deaths — Simpson, along with the nearly 100,000 residents of Flint, are still suffering. And this month, the state of Michigan is threatening to remove the four remaining fresh water pods that were installed in 2016 to provide safe water to residents.
As national press moved on from the Flint Water Crisis, the state started pulling emergency resources last year.
Initially, pods were placed in each of Flint’s nine wards giving fair access to clean and safe drinking water to residents throughout the city. But last July, the state began removing the pods.
Michigan officials are leaning on a 2017 lawsuit settlement between the state, a local organization of clergy called the Concerned Pastors of Social Action, and Flint water activist Melissa Mays.
“The state keeps reminding us of the settlement and that they could have pulled out in September,” says Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. “I think they have a moral and ethical responsibility to stay with Flint during this process and that’s what I’ve said since the beginning.”
The settlement guarantees the replacement of 18,000 lead and galvanized service lines but does not force the state to provide community resources while those lines are being replaced. Instead, the state can cut resources as testing shows there are improvements to Flint’s water.
Officials also cut the number of workers who were going door to door to make sure Flint homes had properly working water filters.
“Right now we need to make one visit,” says Eric Alexander of the Flint field office that operates the Community Outreach and Resident Education (CORE) program aimed at ensuring Flint homes have properly working water filters under the settlement agreement. “Earlier we were making one visit a month, then it was one visit every three months, now it’s one visit every six months between January 1st and July 1st.”
State officials said during a March community meeting that there are no promises.
“I can’t say if resources will be cut or not,” said Michigan Department of Equality spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. “The state is in the process of reviewing.”
“Could the state give us at least a 30-day notice,” asked City of Flint Spokeswoman Kristin Moore during the same community meeting on Flint’s north side.
For residents, a declaration that water quality has improved from the very institution that poisoned them holds little value.
“Nobody trusts the state,” says Greg Timmons, a Flint resident and Executive Director for Flint Restoration for The United Methodist Church. “Absolutely no one. People outside of Flint don’t trust it. They don’t trust filters. I think trust would have to come from other institutions but not the state.”
Though residents like Simpson continue to endure skin rashes — and worse — the state ended the Water Relief Act, aimed to give Flint residents a break from water bill debt, last March. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the act in 2016. Flint residents pay an average of $140 per month for water, the highest in the country. A hefty sum, especially when the water is tainted.
The Water Relief Act gave commercial water customers a 20-percent monthly credit and residential customers a 65-percent credit.
March 1, 2017, that help ended as residents were blindsided by the news and Mayor Weaver tried to work with the state in hopes of continued relief.
After Flint’s water crisis drew national attention, the city was finally allowed to reconnect to Detroit’s water system, Great Lakes Water Authority, in hopes of helping ease the damage done by the Flint River, which is what caused lead to leach into the water system.
The switch back didn’t end the crisis as Flint leaders, activists and residents continued to cry out for help and solutions.
“The people have been coping here so long. That’s why you don’t see as much screaming and marching. It’s been nearly four years.”
The pleas from the community fell on deaf ears as state funding was not only pulled from the relief program but also from the city’s connection to the Great Lakes Water Authority, leaving a city plagued by budget shortfalls to pay for water that residents were being told to only drink if properly filtered.
“The people have been coping here so long that they are just trying to cope,” says Timmons. “You have some residents who are stressed and frustrated but just trying to cope. That’s why you don’t see as much screaming and marching. It’s been nearly four years.”
While state officials lean on lawsuits and community leaders fight to keep resources, residents like Simpson continue to push through the day struggling with everyday routines with water bottles and cold showers.
“I don’t know what’s next and if this will ever end,” Simpson says. “It’s been going on so long that it’s just become a way of life.”
Jiquanda Johnson is a Flint-area native with more than 17 years of experience in journalism including print, television and digital media. In 2017 she founded FlintBeat.com and serves as the online news website’s publisher and editor.
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