Water, Block by Block

“It’s cold!”

That was Glory’s response when I asked if she had anything else to add at the end of our conversation. We were standing in the parking lot of Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Flint Township, just a stone’s throw off I-75.

We broke off in peals of laughter. It was the first time I had laughed all day, but it wouldn’t be the last. For many volunteers, it was a defense mechanism against the absurdity of the situation. Here we were on a cold January afternoon dropping water off door-to-door.

Glory touched on this point while we were talking.

“I think this [volunteer] effort is fantastic, but you know, when you see those commercials on TV about the third-world countries and the children sitting in the street drinking water out of a rain puddle, oh my God. We live in Flint, Michigan, which is in the United States of America, which is in one of the richest countries in the world, and people are bringing us water? The irony is unbelievable.”

Glory was just one of 80 volunteers who had come out to spend their afternoon knocking on doors with donated water.

Some volunteers had driven more than an hour from Metro Detroit. Many had kids in tow.

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Controlled Chaos

Since the Jan. 8 protest a week earlier, the situation on the ground had changed as quickly as the weather. Five hundred miles away, President Obama was signing an emergency declaration freeing up $5 million to send the city bottled water and lead-testing equipment. Five miles away, Michael Moore, Flint’s hometown son, was leading a protest outside Flint City Hall.

At last. The word was out. News coverage was picking up steam; after months of inaction, everything was happening at once.

As we divided into teams, I met Colette.

Like most everyone else, she was a little lost on what was happening, but eager to help.

“Can I get a ride with you?” she asked.

“Of course,” I told her.

Minutes later we were on the freeway and got to talking. Naturally, we started with the inevitable “So what brings you here today?”

Like so many others at the event, Colette isn’t a Flint resident. But after following the news coverage of the unfolding tragedy, she simply felt like she couldn’t sit by on a Saturday afternoon and do nothing.

While this was Colette’s first time at a volunteer event, she hasn’t been on the sidelines.

“I have donated I don’t even know how many cases of water. Every time I go to the grocery store, I pick up an extra two cases, drop it off at the American Red Cross that’s in Flint.”

For Colette, she can’t imagine doing any less.

“This isn’t something that’s going to go away tomorrow,” said Colette. “We understand that delivering water isn’t going to fix the problem, but it’s gonna make it a little bit easier for the people of Flint to function on a daily basis because they don’t have clean water coming out of their faucets.”

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Not Your Typical American City

I asked Colette, a Flint resident from 2007 to 2012, if she could tell me a little about Flint’s situation prior to the water crisis.

“We’re the home of the Sit Down Strike, and all these plants have come in and sucked up all the resources from around them and just picked up and left and gone to Mexico, or gone overseas to China and other areas where it’s a lot cheaper for them to get labor, and they’ve basically left the city here just basically to rot.”

While the city has been “left to rot,” Colette is one of countless current and former residents who still fight for the city today.

“I think it’s important for the people who live in and around Flint to not let that happen. This is our home. This is where I spent the majority of my childhood.”

Even with a team of 80, distributing a few gallons of water per household in a city of 100,000 felt a little like trying to bail water out of the Titanic.

“It’s not about what the government can do for them anymore,” Colette said. “The government has failed us. We’re not being given the help that we need. We’re sitting ducks at this point.”

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“If we’re not willing to help, no one else is,” Colette said.

She’s not alone in her thinking. When I asked Glory if she thought President Obama should visit Flint during his trip to Michigan for the Auto Show, she was indifferent.

“I love Barack Obama, but really, another politician, what’s it gonna do?” Glory said. “What’s that going to do for the people of Flint? If it’s going to bring more aid to us to redo our pipes so we’re not paying this load of money for water we can’t use, yeah, fine.”

While the governor and the city’s ex-mayor take the lion’s share of the local ire, there’s a deeper disdain across the city.

“Basically, right now, I’m kind of down on politicians,” Glory shared. “You know, the Constitution says for the people, by the people, of the people. And I believe politicians have forgotten that. Do they really put us first? I don’t know.”

Chambers Street

The townhouse complex we had been assigned turned out to be just a couple miles from where I work on the south side of Flint. The neighborhood was quiet.

We started making our way door to door. At first, it seemed as though we might be there all night. Door after door, we got no answer.

In each row of townhouses, there were five units. Occasionally, people we talked to would tell us which units to skip because they were vacant. It seemed like two out of every five units were uninhabited. That’s not including the structures that were entirely boarded up and abandoned.

You could hear the hesitation in people’s voices when we knocked. Can you blame them? Your government has given the city lead poisoning. Who can you trust?

To speed things up, I eventually started shouting “Water!” as I pounded on doors.

As the woman in the first occupied house thanked us, I wasn’t quite sure what to say in parting.

“Be safe,” I said. It seemed like an odd thing to me once it was out of my mouth. But I kept saying it the rest of the afternoon. It seemed necessary, especially since most of the houses we stopped by had kids, many of them six or under, the age when kids are most susceptible to lead poisoning.

Without exception, once people knew why we were there, the door flew open.

As the afternoon drew to a close, I asked Colette how many of the people we had spoken to were aware of the water filters available at Flint fire stations.

“I would say at least two-thirds have no idea,” she said.

I shook my head. From there on out, I started repeating myself.

Please make sure you go down to the fire station to get a filter.”

During our discussions throughout the day, Colette repeatedly shared her firm belief that she had no option; she had to act.

“It’s not an option for me and I feel like it shouldn’t be an option for other people, either,” Colette said. “We should all be helping and doing everything that we can.”

As we pulled up to the apartment complex on Chambers, Colette finished with a modified quote from Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax:

“Unless a whole lot of people care a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to change, it’s not.”

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