Crossing Water: At the Heart of the Storm

If Michael doesn’t have a phone in his hand, he’s probably answering questions from his volunteers. More likely, you’ll find him doing both. Even in the midst of a chaotic situation, you still get the impression that Michael (or Mike—he doesn’t care which) is listening to you with undivided attention.

As the volunteer teams left, a relative calm took hold in the basement of St. Michael’s Catholic Church. On the walls, you’ll see photos from 50 years ago. Smiling white faces in a city that was once among the most prosperous in the world.

After asking for five more minutes more than once, Michael sat down to talk with me.

“We’ve got a big, kind of a grassroots political canvass campaign going on,” Michael explained. “You’ve got groups from all over the country, and they’ve organized a couple hundred volunteers to go and canvass some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, some of the most underserved folks.”

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“They’re there for a couple of reasons,” Michael continued. “One is to get folks’ stories, to find out just how bad this is, how bad the suffering is, and at what level. And the other issue is to get them services right now—and some of these folks have not seen anyone official from the state, the local, feds—or they’ve gotten very little from them—and we’re here to fill those gaps.”

Helping Those Most in Need

We only got a couple minutes in when someone interrupted.

“We’re out of filters already.”

“Sorry, hang on a second,” Michael told me.

Welcome to another day in the makeshift headquarters of a massive, volunteer-powered crisis management operation. Since we met him 10 days earlier at the State of the State protest in Lansing, Michael and a team of social workers set up an operation admirable in scope as well as thorough attention to detail.

“Our goal at the end of this,” Michael had said, “is to make sure that the most under-served population of this town get the most services of anybody.”

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When Michael returned a couple of minutes later, he picked up exactly where he had left off.

“So,” he resumed, “right now, the phones are blowing up. We’re already slammed. We have three teams in the pipeline with a fourth going out right now. We expect if we had more people, we’d have more folks going out. So we are backed up, which tells you the level of need going on here.”

Frankly, in many ways, Crossing Water’s specialized Rapid Response Service Teams are Flint’s best shot right now. While the Red Cross has been working to deliver filters and water on residents’ doorsteps, they have not taken Crossing Water’s proactive approach of identifying and tackling urgent needs as they encounter them.

“We don’t want to be a band-aid,” Michael explained. “We don’t want to do something someone else is doing or everyone else is doing.”

On the latter point, I’m sure Michael was right. I can’t imagine that anyone anywhere else in the city was taking the same level of calls as Crossing Water—all on a single line, at that.

“We focused on the Latino/Hispanic community, but we’re also focused on the undocumented workers in this and their families, who get nothing and are expected to just like it. It’s just an injustice that I can’t sit still for.”

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“Our Katrina”

No one at Crossing Water is naive about the scope of the problem.

“This is a nightmare, and it’s like our Katrina. We need to deal with it like a nightmare. So far I’ve seen very few agencies treat it like the nightmare that it is.”

The gravity of the situation and the years of neglect in the wake of GM’s departure from Flint only serve to reinforce Michael’s commitment to the work at hand.

“I love the people here. They’re hard-working people. They helped build this state into what it is today, and so for me to be here for them is merely a way of showing gratitude. And even more importantly, anyone from Flint, they’re a Michigander. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s Flint or Copper Harbor, I mean, we’d be in this fight.”

Our conversation lasted an entire eight minutes before another call came in and put a halt to the interview.

“There’s six hundred cases headed this way,” a volunteer informed Michael.

“Six hundred cases?” he shot back.

“Six hundred cases. They’ll be here around 12:30.”

Mike looked over at me.

“Do what you need to do,” I told him.

The rest, it turns out, would have to wait for another day.

This is part two in a three-part series. Stay tuned. Part three is coming Tuesday, Feb. 9.

Part one: “A Breakdown of Civilization at the Highest Level”

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