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Why Flint residents are still dealing with water worries, 5 years after lead crisis

Since 2014, Flint, Michigan, has been synonymous with tainted water. Five years on, not all of the city's residents have access to safe water. Some wait for hours in line to obtain bottled water, while others deal with the physical and emotional fallout of exposure to high lead levels from corrosion of city pipes. John Yang reports from Flint on what has changed -- and what hasn’t.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since 2014, Flint, Michigan has been synonymous with tainted water. Five years on, city officials are still struggling to make the water safe for all its residents.

    John Yang went back to see what's changed and what hasn't.

  • John Yang:

    A typical Thursday morning on Flint, Michigan's North side. Cars stretch for a full mile, some in line for more than five hours. The goal of this weekly quest? Bottled water.

    Ray Ducham comes once a month.

    This crisis started years ago.

  • Ray Ducham:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    Did you think you would still be doing this now?

  • Ray Ducham:

    No. I thought maybe they'd have the water clean by now.

  • John Yang:

    After the state stopped distributing water last year, the Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ stepped up.

    Latrece Davis, who coordinates the effort, says they start each week with more than 1,700 cases of water, and, every week, the demand is greater than that supply.

    How many cars, how many families each Thursday?

  • Latrece Davis:

    We run probably about 1,500 to 1,700 cars. So, you're looking about 700 — 600 to 800 families.

  • John Yang:

    For more than five years, water has dominated the lives of many in this city, where more than 55 percent of residents are black and more than 40 percent live in poverty.

    In April 2014, state-appointed officials tried to save money by shifting the source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. But the river water was more corrosive than the lake water. The city failed to treat it properly, and it damaged Flint's aging pipes, causing lead to leach into the system.

    The city switched back to lake water in October 2015, but pipe replacement is still ongoing, and so are concerns.

  • Ariana Hawk:

    It affects the way that we cook, the way that we brush our teeth, the way that we just use water in general.

  • John Yang:

    In 2016, Ariana Hawk's second oldest son, Sincere, then 2 years old, was on the cover of "TIME" magazine, after developing painful blisters and rashes.

  • Ariana Hawk:

    His thing was just the fear of the water. Even him as a 6-year-old, he still says, like, the water is dangerous. Like, he don't like it. He avoids it as much as possible.

  • John Yang:

    Despite officials' assurances at the time that the water was safe, Hawk blames herself.

  • Ariana Hawk:

    I'm his mom. I should have been protective. I should've knew better. I should have — I should have been educated more, and this wouldn't have happened.

  • John Yang:

    Although her 4-year-old daughter, Aliana, doesn't have symptoms, blood tests show she has high lead levels.

  • Ariana Hawk:

    It's devastating. It's very hard to deal with on a daily basis. It's hard to even just deal with as a parent, because, sometimes, I feel like I can do better.

    But it's not my fault that the water is like this. It's not something that I asked for. It's not something that I chose for my kids.

  • John Yang:

    Across town, Maxine Onstott's 7-year-old son, Max, was diagnosed with autism in the midst of the crisis.

  • Maxine Onstott:

    With Max, I can't say that's what caused him to have the disability he has, but he was exposed. We drank it. We bathed in that. We used it every single day. We cooked with it.

  • John Yang:

    Max is among the growing number of special education students in Flint public schools. Since 2013, before the crisis, it's up 56 percent, according to state figures.

    A group of Flint parents is suing the school system, saying it is not meeting those students' needs.

    What would recovery mean for you?

  • Maxine Onstott:

    Recovery for me would be my city recovering. There's nothing more that anybody can do for me and my family at this point.

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    Well, the Flint water crisis is really a whole bunch of things.

  • John Yang:

    Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha was among the first to sound the alarm about lead in the drinking water.

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    We can't take it away. There's no magic pill. There's no antidote. We can't we can't press rewind and pretend that this didn't happen.

  • John Yang:

    Now she's deeply involved in the recovery effort.

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    We have invested in the critical period of early childhood, with home visiting programs, and Medicaid expansion, school health services, a massive expansion of early literacy programs.

    We have turned this crisis into almost this model public health program of recovery and hope for the people of Flint.

  • John Yang:

    A project called the Flint Registry tracks the effects of lead exposure and connects residents to those programs.

  • Karen Weaver:

    Flint was a thriving city, and it can be a thriving city again. And we're on that road. We're headed that way.

  • John Yang:

    Flint Mayor Karen weaver beat the incumbent at the height of the crisis.

  • Karen Weaver:

    We need to get the help that we deserve, so we can have a full recovery. And, for some, that full recovery, you know, we don't know if it will come. If you have lost a loved one, if you have a child that's been damaged, you're going to deal with that for the rest of your life.

  • John Yang:

    She expressed frustration that, this summer, criminal charges were dropped against officials, including manslaughter for at least a dozen deaths from Legionnaires' disease believed linked to the water crisis.

    The new Michigan attorney general said her predecessor had botched the investigation, so she was starting all over again.

  • Karen Weaver:

    If it had been a shooting, people would be locked up. Well, we had killings that took place here in the city of Flint, and no one has looked at it that way.

  • John Yang:

    The city no longer takes its water from the Flint River, and it's begun to replace its lead and galvanized steel water pipes. But rebuilding the shattered public trust is likely to take some time.

    It is a wound that seems to run deep.

  • Maxine Onstott:

    You're supposed to be able to trust these people in power. And we were bamboozled by them.

  • John Yang:

    Are you angry?

  • Ariana Hawk:

    Oh, yes, of course I'm angry. I'm more upset and hurt than anger. It's hurting, because these are people who we trust everyday, these are the people who say that this was OK.

  • Karen Weaver:

    One of the things I did promise was that I would give them the information, whether it was good news or bad news, because we had bad news that people kept from us. And had they shared that bad news with us, we could have protected ourselves better.

  • John Yang:

    For residents like Ariana Hawk and Maxine Onstott, it may be too late.

    I mean, it almost sounds like that there's some parts that you just don't think you can recover.

  • Maxine Onstott:

    We wake up. We brush our teeth with bottled water. We drink bottled water. We're out of bottled water. It's, pack back up, let's get in the van, and go get some more bottled water.

  • Ariana Hawk:

    We're still fighting for us to have a healthy and safe life. Things in Flint are not better. Nothing has changed for us. This has become our reality, which is not right.

  • John Yang:

    A reality for them that no amount of pipe replacement or reassuring words is likely to repair.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Flint, Michigan.

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