FLINT, Mich.-- A sign hanging over a shuttered, bricked-over storefront along a main business thoroughfare conveys a message from another time. "Where dreams come true," it says.
A congressional delegation arriving here Friday will find plenty of evidence that's not how it turned out in one of the nation's most disadvantaged cities. There are broken windows and sagging roofs on the factory workers’ bungalows now, a note on the door of a party supply store saying that it's closed after 18 years, and pamphlets on how to win the lottery are for sale at corner stores in neighborhoods where school supplies are hard to find. Since revelations that more than 9,000 Flint children were poisoned for months by drinking lead-contaminated water, members of Congress have called the crisis “Flint’s Katrina.” And like the hurricane that devastated whole neighborhoods in New Orleans, the slow-motion, unnatural disaster here has exposed entrenched poverty and inequality.
“This has been going on for 50 years,” said Iltefat Hamzavi, a dermatologist who volunteers at the North Ward Community Center, where he treats the skin rashes and sores caused by the tainted water. “It’s a complete collapse of civil society. We’re not going to fix it by having a photo op and leaving. It has to be a sustained effort.”
The question that residents are asking is what will, and what can, Congress do for Flint, a city of 99,000 that has lost half its population and most of its jobs since its heyday in the 1960s.
Residents have welcomed the national attention, which intensified when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton interrupted her campaigning in New Hampshire to swing through and shoot a campaign commercial. Two congressional delegations have already visited and a third, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrives Friday. Two days later, the city will host a Democratic presidential debate.
But after years of mismanagement and inattention, residents are also deeply skeptical that any of it will make a difference. Six weeks after President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency here, many are still afraid to use their tap water, and they likely will not know whether it is safe for several weeks.
In the meantime, residents describe the choreography superimposed on daily routines already complicated by poverty and unemployment.
Tiantha Williams goes through several cases of bottled water a day to bathe and feed her 2-month-old son. The baby, Taylor Matthais Wilson-Williams, was the size of a kitten when he was born at 28 weeks with a listeria infection from his mother's amniotic fluid. That's a sure sign, the family believes, that his health problems were caused by the water.
Jobless and working on a community college degree, Williams is angry and worried about the baby's future: “He’s going to need help."
For now, she must occupy herself with the many tasks that have become matters of life or death for her tiny charge, now more than twice his birth weight at a mere 5 pounds, 7 ounces. The baby is sleeping in his car seat, hooked to a heart rate monitor and breathing machine, as Williams collects the daily limit of four cases of water from a distribution center. It will all be gone by the end of the day, warmed on the stove for his bath, mixed into his formula and doused over anything that touches his lips.
Other residents have tried to move their children away from the city’s plumbing. Trayvon Chatman, 27, and his girlfriend took their children, 5-year-old Davarrius Griffin and 4-year-old Nivea Beverly, to stay in a $135-a-week hotel just outside the city line, an expense that has required Chatman, who works temporary jobs at local factories, to pick up extra money cutting hair and even donating blood for $50.
“What choice do we have?” he says. “This is their future.”
Both children have been found to have elevated blood lead levels, which could cause lifelong learning disabilities and health problems. Chatman says no one had offered assistance for the children, though federal officials recently announced that they would likely extend Medicaid benefits to pregnant women and children in Flint.
Even before the water turned bad, the family faced a constellation of obstacles. Chatman has trouble finding steady work and is barred from receiving federal food stamps or welfare because of three felony drug convictions, the most recent of which dates to 2009.
The street where the family lives – in a house that belonged to Chatman’s mother and her parents before that – has been the site of at least four shooting deaths since 2008, most recently in May 2015. Flint consistently ranks among the most violent in the country, according to FBI statistics. Chatman points to a deflated Mylar balloon hanging from a light post, honoring one of the victims. Then he points out the boarded-up houses along the street, cheaper to raze than to repair, he says.
And he's still waiting for help beyond the bottled water and official visits: “At the end of the day, they go home and don’t have to deal with this no more. We’re still stuck here.”
Stories like these led one volunteer at a local health clinic to warn visiting members of Congress that the water crisis could easily disrupt a fragile social balance here. “There’s a lot of animosity and anger,” Jawad Shah told the group when they visited the center in late February. “Directed at anyone and everyone that moves.”
Shah and others say it will be easier to repair pipes than to address the roots of that anger with some job training, early childhood education and community health care.
Katrina, too, sparked fears of social collapse when it hit New Orleans in 2005. Back then, Congress responded by passing two relief bills almost unanimously. Over the following years, federal aid totaled $120 billion. About $76 billion of that — almost three times the size of Louisiana’s annual budget — went to rebuilding projects, according to The Times Picayune.
The money paid for new levees, better local school districts and criminal justice systems, HUD housing vouchers and grants for medical services in under-served areas. With billions in federal aid, New Orleans rebounded with better schools, housing, health care and civic engagement, according to the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
Such assistance would go a long way in Flint, where the 40.1 percent poverty rate places it among the poorest cities in the country. In fact, it is poorer than New Orleans’ lower 9th Ward, which has a 33 percent poverty rate and was the hardest hit by Katrina. But Flint's catastrophe was the result of poor decision making by city officials and months of inaction by the state and federal agencies charged with protecting the drinking water supply. And unnatural disasters don't qualify for certain types of disaster assistance.
The city could prove an ideal test case for a Republican Party newly committed under House Speaker Paul Ryan to addressing poverty.
Ryan has so far limited his public comments on the water crisis to praise of a House bill requiring the EPA to publicize tests showing high lead levels in tap water; he says only that this is a good “first step in our response.” Kevin Brady, R-Tex, Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee and one of five House Republicans Ryan appointed to a task force on poverty, says it's too early to say whether Flint could benefit from the party’s poverty agenda. “We’re just getting started."
Democrats, led by Michigan House member Dan Kildee, who grew up in Flint, have promised national action. “Neglect of older cities, neglect of our infrastructure, neglect of our long-term obligations to create a sustainable society is something that impacts everyone in this country,” Kildee said when he led a delegation to the city Feb. 22.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who was born in Detroit, is planning to visit Flint this weekend along with a delegation of Democrats that includes members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus.
He said federal help should go beyond money for rebuilding pipes to include improvements in the public health system and early childhood education for children who were exposed. He also said the federal response should encompass needed infrastructure improvements across the country.
“We should all see Flint as not only a crisis in Flint but also a national call to action to really address our nation’s drinking water supply,” he said. “In a country with the level of wealth that we have, it’s just unacceptable that whole communities don’t have water.”
But for now, the federal response continues to focus on the city’s short-term needs: bottled water and filters and perhaps money that would help repair or replace the city’s pipes, a task that the city’s mayor projected would cost $55 million and take a year. Other estimates are much higher. The federal Office of Head Start has agreed to provide $3.6 million in emergency money to expand access to the early education program and enhance services for the children and families enrolled.
Other costs are harder to determine. The city expects a rash of property tax appeals when it mails assessments this month, according to the Detroit Free Press. One real estate lawyer told the paper that property values, already severely depressed, have plummeted as much as 25 percent. Retired schoolteacher Steve Munsell, 64, says his neighbor just sold a historic mansion in one of the city’s most stable neighborhoods for just $5,000: “Those of us committed to where we live are suffering. Our houses are worth nothing.”
The crisis has also threatened efforts to revitalize downtown Flint. Investors have pumped more than $387 million into the city center since 2004, according to the Chamber of Commerce, with projects such as flashy new restaurants, residence halls for University of Michigan students and a farmers’ market. But some of those restaurants now have signs on their doors advertising not specials but safe water, and winter enrollment at the university’s downtown campus has dropped 3 percent since the water crisis, according to local media reports.
Doug Wiseley, 55, a former factory worker who lives on one of the dozens of city streets lined with decaying homes, worries that the crisis could be a death blow to his neighborhood.
“It might be cheaper just to have everyone move out and level the town,” he says. "I think a lot of people will just abandon their houses and leave... If I was smart, I'd do it."