President Barack Obama drinks filtered Flint water during a briefing on the response to the ongoing water crisis by the unified command group at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint, Mich., May 4, 2016.
President Barack Obama drinks filtered Flint water during a briefing on the response to the ongoing water crisis by the unified command group at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint, Mich., May 4, 2016.

WHITE HOUSE - President Barack Obama paid his first visit to Flint, Michigan since the contaminated water crisis began, delivering an upbeat address to some 1,000 residents at Flint Northwestern High School.

Speaking to a warm and enthusiastic crowd, the president emphasized that it is crucial that every parent in Flint have their children tested for elevated lead levels. But he said the good news for families is, that even if there was exposure to lead, with the proper medical care, their children will be fine.

“They'll do just fine... they'll make it as long as we're there for them, and looking after them and doing the right thing for them and giving them the resources that they need,” he said.

Obama said the crisis in Flint was man-made and some poor decisions were made, but he does not believe anyone deliberately wanted to hurt the people of Flint.

He said there is a mindset among many that cutting government is the highest goal.  “And this kind of thinking, this myth that government is always the enemy, forgets that our government is us. It’s us; it’s an extension of us of ourselves. That attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in lead in your water. Because what happens is that it leads to systemic neglect. It leads to carelessness and callousness.”

Obama said it does not matter how hard you work, you can't set up a whole water system, you can't hire your own fire department, your own police force or your own army. There are some things Americans have to do together, he said.

A drink of water

During the speech, the president coughed and asked for a drink of water. After someone brought him a glass and he took a sip, explaining that filtered Flint water is safe to drink for everyone except pregnant women and children under the age of six. He said that Flint’s corroded pipes will be replaced, but that it could take up to 2 years.

President Barack Obama arrives to speak at Flint N
President Barack Obama arrives to speak at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, May 4, 2016, about the ongoing water crisis. In his address, he acknowledged the crisis was man-made and a result of poor decisions.

Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder tried to introduce the president, but was met with loud and repeated booing that lasted several minutes. He quickly left the stage. Snyder has come under criticism from local residents, as well as federal officials, lawmakers and civil rights activists over the crisis.

Before the address, President Obama met privately with Flint families to hear their concerns. He also met with federal, state and local officials to talk about coordinating efforts to help, including community outreach to get every child checked for lead levels.

Letter from 8-year-old

The president said his visit was prompted by a letter from an eight-year-old Flint girl who asked to meet with him personally to discuss the crisis. Amariyanna "Mari" Copeny is one of an estimated 100,000 Flint residents without reliable access to safe drinking and bathing water since the crisis began. She wrote the president that the water “smells like bleach and old fish.” The president called her “Little Miss Flint,” and said people like her are what is great about America.

The Flint crisis erupted in 2014, when the cash-strapped city government sought to save money by drawing water from a local river rather than nearby Detroit's water system. Months later, it was found that engineers did not properly treat the corrosive Flint river water to prevent lead leaching from old pipes in the largely African-American city. The uproar intensified when it was learned that Flint residents were not informed about the tainted water supply for 18 months.

The Obama visit comes eight days after U.S. senators from both political parties reached a tentative deal to authorize $170 million in aid to replace the city's contaminated water pipes and other infrastructure.