FLINT, Mich. -- Saginaw Street was once a symbol of downtown revitalization in this city. Restaurants with gleaming dining rooms serve locally sourced meals and the apartment buildings advertise industrial lofts. Now people are afraid to eat out in a city where water testing has shown dangerously high levels of lead, and boarded-up businesses and abandoned homes on the edge of town serve as a reminder of how quickly the situation here could unravel.
After a day spent meeting in Flint with business owners struggling to stay afloat and with families concerned about health effects, a delegation of House Democrats pledged on Monday to deliver federal support.
“The people of this city are victims of neglect from their own government,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., at an afternoon news conference here. “They deserve to have a response equal to the crisis, and that includes a response from the federal government. They are citizens of the United States.”
Kildee and other members of the delegation — which included Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — said the situation in Flint should serve as a “wake-up call” to Congress to address the country’s failing water delivery infrastructure and to spur recovery in Flint.
A month after President Obama declared a federal state of emergency here, residents and business owners said they are still struggling to understand the extent of the damage and go on with their lives, a task they said is only slightly alleviated by the national attention.
Many of the city’s restaurants have posted signs on their doors attempting to dispel customers’ fears. Residents said they still have to limit the number of baths they take, use bottled water to cook and wash their dishes and are looking for answers to even basic questions from local, state and federal officials. What types of filters should they install? What — if anything — is an acceptable use of the water from their tap? When will the pipes be fixed?
“The first thing they are thinking in Washington, D.C., is we want money,” said Steve Munsell, 64, a retired school teacher. “The federal government can help us get answers.”
The congressional delegation attempted to address some of those concerns during a trip that included a discussion with local business owners and a tour of a community center where volunteers are handing out bottled water, testing residents’ blood lead levels and providing support.
Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said the day had been a series of “highs and lows,” for him as he witnessed evidence of both the city’s resilience and its fragility. He said he was particularly touched by a woman who told him she had closed her business because of the water contamination crisis.
“We as the federal government have a role to play,” he said. Cummings is pushing to require Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder to produce state documents related to the the handling of the crisis. Snyder has so far ignored those requests.
“Our job is to look into this situation, to figure out what happened here and to make sure it never happens again,” Cummings said, referring to a series of hearings that the Oversight Committee began last month. “America is better than this.”
The visit came in advance of a series of high-profile political events in Flint. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to visit with a group of 15 to 20 members of Congress on March 4, and a Democratic presidential debate is scheduled there between Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on March 6, two days before the Michigan and Mississippi primaries. Clinton interrupted campaigning in New Hampshire to visit the city early this month.
Residents and business owners said they had several concerns they would like the federal government to address. Noah Vukaj, owner of the popular Olympic Coney Island and Family Restaurant, spent about $4,000 to install a top-of-the-line water filtration system. The contraption cycles every hour and 45 minutes, flushing unused water directly into the sewer. The water bills have been “outrageous,” Vukaj said. Yet even that measure has failed to bring business back to its pre-crisis levels.
An EPA official told the restaurant’s manager, Wanda Thorpe, that tests had shown no traces of lead in the water and that they would receive a letter to show their customers within a week. That was a week ago Friday. Meanwhile, business still has not returned to where it was, and Vukaj is not sure whether he will ever qualify for any assistance for the money he has lost. In the meantime, he said, he is relying on his patron’s trust.
“We do have a lot of regular customers," Thorpe said, "but it would be nice to have something to show people.”
At the Sylvester Broome Center in the city’s North Ward, one of the poorest parts of town, Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence introduced herself to Lisa Strong, squeezing the woman's arm and shaking her hand.
Strong was there with her parents, 91 and 83, so they could be tested for lead exposure. Her mother’s hair had fallen out. Her father had rashes. She knew nothing about the congressional delegation. She just wanted someone to fix her pipes.
The delegation said the visit had left it with several ideas of how the federal government could help.
Lawrence said she would push Congress to see the Flint crisis as incentive to invest in the rest of the country. "This is about infrastructure in America," she said. "We can't kick this can down the road anymore."
She is also considering legislation that would address the system in Michigan that allowed Snyder to appoint an emergency financial manager in Flint in 2011, wresting decisions about city’s day-to-day operations from elected leaders.
And Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, said the people of Flint need to know the people responsible for the crisis would be held accountable. "No one will ever forget what happened in Flint," she said. "Let it be stamped on the mind of every water system in the country so it will never happen again." Contact Akin at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin. Related: See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.