“A Breakdown of Civilization at the Highest Level”

Armed with peanut butter sandwiches wrapped in tin foil and a bunch of bananas, we rolled into Flint at 10:30 on Saturday morning.

Already, dozens streamed out of St. Michael’s, a Catholic church just across the river from downtown Flint.

We made our way into the basement where a crowd of 30 remained, many of them social workers or social work students.

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St. Michael’s

At the heart of the operation was Michael Hood, a bespectacled man with a brown scarf, a scruffy beard and a heart the size of Flint.

We had met only a week earlier in Lansing after the State of the State protest. Even so, Michael threw his arms wide and welcomed us with a hug.

Before long, Michael rounded up the volunteers to brief them on the work at hand. We were part of a second, smaller group that would be responding to issues flagged by the first team as calls came in. Michael and his team trained the first wave of volunteers to identify homes facing urgent issues.

“The people that are canvassing are going to report to us about urgent needs, and we are going to respond,” Laurie Carpenter, co-organizer of Crossing Water, further explained. “They have a number of things they are looking at, like do they have water, do they have filters, are they installed and working, do they have young children, are they homebound? Those are the things that will trigger a response.”

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Michael Hood addresses social work students at St. Michael’s.

More Than Knocking on Doors

In one instance, the team encountered a woman without a faucet at all. Instead, she only had a hose where the faucet used to be.

So much for a water filter.

“This is one of my mantras,” Michael said at least twice over the weekend, “if you have a filter and you don’t know if it works or not, you don’t have a filter. If you have a filter sitting on your kitchen table, the damn thing is not doing you any good.”

In the case of this woman, Michael and his team were able to get a plumber to her home, install a faucet and ultimately install a water filter as well.

Just a reminder of what reality looks like every day in Flint.

“We are going into homes and checking filters,” Michael explained. “We are finding that a lot of filters are not working, broken or not turned on. Many times people have their filters on top of their dining room tables. If we hear that we go in there, and try to problem solve it, swap it, fix it.”

A city long-acquainted with bad news got more of the same on the night Mayor Karen Weaver announced that a number of houses in Flint still registered sky-high lead levels. While no amount of lead is considered safe, federal guidelines suggest that 15 parts per billion or higher is particularly hazardous, especially for young children. According to the latest findings, some homes were registering at 150 parts per billion. The highest level recorded was over 4,000.

Laurie addressed this issue at the morning briefing.

“There is the percentage of houses where the testing says that the lead is too high for the filters to get all the lead out,” she acknowledged. “But again, it’s better than not having a filter.”

The word was going out: unless you’ve had your water tested, pregnant women, children and elderly folks shouldn’t drink the water—even with a filter installed.

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From left to right: Bob Pratt, Laurie Carpenter, and Michael Hood.

“A Breakdown of Civilization”

9:15 Sunday night.

As I was getting ready to send this article out for proofing, I got a call from Michael. He had just returned home after another day of canvassing and responding to calls.

“Joel, this is a breakdown of civilization at the highest level.”

Clearly shaken, he started to tell me about meeting people today who had no idea about the water crisis, more than a month after Flint made national headlines. Another gentleman showed the Crossing Water team his monthly water bill.

“If I’m paying this much for my water, I’m going to drink it,” he told them.

“We have mothers with kids with no water, no food, no income,” Michael said. “If you’re buying bottled water, there goes your pad, you’ve got nothing left for the rest of the week.”

Michael’s call provided some stunning context for a comment he made Saturday morning during his briefing.

“We are in a developing nation situation,” Michael told the crowd. “We are worried that thinking that long-term is too depressing for most of us, and there is not enough Scotch in the room for that conversation.”

If the long-term is too depressing, then what can we say for the short-term?

Flint has held on through one of the nation’s worst economic collapses in history. With each day that goes by, we’re left to wonder, ‘Is this a new beginning, or the beginning of the end?’

Michael shared the story of one woman whose plight falls at the heart of Crossing Water’s mission operandi.

“In a city of 100,000 people, this crisis is changing every day,” said Michael, “and the people that have been underserved, our goal is that they get the most services because they have been getting the short end of the stick for so damn long.”

“We are going to be here for as long as the crisis is going on, if that means weeks, months, years; we plan on having a presence here. We are planning on working with whoever wants to work with us,” said Bob.

Flint, it seems, attracts a stubborn type.

This is part one in a three part series. Stay tuned. Part two is coming Thursday, Feb. 4.

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