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Flint Residents Struggle to Cope with Ongoing Water Crisis


In a tree-lined neighborhood in Flint, Michigan, the arrival of the American Red Cross disaster truck is a welcome sign of relief outside of Terence Johnson's brown brick home.

Now Johnson, who works a construction job, might finally be able to take a bath — thanks to the supplies on the truck.

"Right now it's not safe to shower," he said. "It's not safe to bathe unless you use bottled water."

Johnson believes it isn't safe because, among other concerns, Flint's water has high levels of lead.

Johnson says he won't be the first one to wash with the bottled water he gets from the Red Cross truck. But he says he makes sure the elderly citizens who live near him get water before he uses what's left to clean himself up.

Calling it a proper "bath," however, is a stretch.

American Red Cross disaster trucks deliver bottled water to residents of Flint, Michigan, in February 2016. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

American Red Cross disaster trucks deliver bottled water to residents of Flint, Michigan, in February 2016. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

"You're taking bottled water, and you're heating it in the microwave, or on the stove, and then pouring it in the face bowl and bathing with it," Johnson said.

Johnson says the last time he had a real shower was sometime late last year.

New normal

April 2014 is when city officials switched from using Detroit's water supply to the local Flint River.

It was supposed to answer the water needs of this city of about 100,000 people. But the corrosive properties of the river water flowing through old pipes throughout Flint leached harmful levels of lead into the water supply.

Last year, doctors discovered high levels of lead in the blood of local children, which finally put the problem in the spotlight. Now, residents like Johnson are at the center of a water crisis, which has no clear end in sight.

"I'm angry that people didn't know about it," he says. "I'm angry that people wasn't informed about it in 2014 when it first started."

As government officials scramble for solutions, the ongoing concern about safe drinking water in the city of Flint is taking a toll on people like Johnson who have decided to stay.

"I think people in office didn't care," Johnson told VOA. "You know, people who were responsible for this didn't care."

Water deliveries

Now, as city, state, and federal officials try to figure out how to solve the problem long term, short-term solutions rest on the shoulders of volunteers like Virginia Bialesco, who distribute bottled water and filters door-to-door.

Residents of Flint, Michigan, rely on bottled water for drinking, bathing and other uses. "Brushing your teeth, showering, cooking. I mean, we use water for a lot more than just drinking water," said volunteer Virginia Bialesco. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

Residents of Flint, Michigan, rely on bottled water for drinking, bathing and other uses. "Brushing your teeth, showering, cooking. I mean, we use water for a lot more than just drinking water," said volunteer Virginia Bialesco. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)

"If you can't afford to leave an area, and you're stuck in it, think about everything you do," she said in between delivering cases of water to people’s doorsteps. "Brushing your teeth, showering, cooking. I mean, we use water for a lot more than just drinking water."

Those who don't get water delivered to their home drive to one of several distribution points set up around the city, where National Guard soldiers load cases of bottled water into vehicles.

"Hopefully, we're learning a lot of lessons here," Bialesco said. "The basic one is not to take our water supply for granted."

The cost and the scope of solving Flint's water crisis varies greatly, but some residents and officials say the only way to put faith back in the water system is to replace the lead pipes. In Flint, there could be as many as 15,000 of them.

Flint is home

Until the problem is fixed, residents like Johnson will have to rely on regular supplies of bottled water and filters to get through the crisis. Johnson says he's also heard more help is on the way.

"They're talking about bringing in portable showers, with clean water, so people can go out and take showers," he said.

Despite the problems, Johnson says he plans to stay in Flint.

"No, this is my home," he said when asked about the possibility of moving.

It isn't out of the question, he added, should someone offer him the right price for his house.

"A million dollars," he said with a smile, knowing that's an improbable figure. "I'm not leaving."

Explainer: How Flint's Water Became Toxic

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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