‘If I could afford to leave, I would.’ In Flint, a water crisis with no end in sight.

‘If I could afford to leave, I would.’ In Flint, a water crisis with no end in sight.
By Brady Dennis
Oct 22 2016

Even now, the people of Flint, Mich., cannot trust what flows from their taps.

More than one year after government officials finally acknowledged that an entire city’s water system was contaminated by lead, many residents still rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Parents still worry about their kids. Promised aid has yet to arrive. In ways large and small, the crisis continues to shape daily life.

From the pulpit some Sunday mornings, the Rev. Rigel Dawson can see it.

The anger and frustration over Flint’s contaminated water, so visceral at first, over time has given way to something almost worse: resignation.

“It was one more big thing on top of a bunch of big things,” Dawson says.

You have to understand, the pastor says, that people in Flint are resilient. They’ve endured crime, blight, decades of economic hardship. But as the water disaster stretches on, it has chipped away at the usual stoicism of his parishioners at North Central Church of Christ.

“You see the pain it’s caused. You see the discouragement and frustration,” says Dawson, whose own children still must bathe in bottled water. “Members are enraged, depressed, despondent, hopeless. You see the full gamut of emotions.”

When President Obama came to town in May, the 40-year-old Dawson was among the Flint residents who met with him privately. He tried to explain how marginalized people feel, how certain they are that, had this happened in a more affluent community, change would have come far sooner.

“I told Obama, ‘It makes you feel like you don’t count,’ ” he says. “ ‘People sometimes feel that we don’t really matter. We’ve had to fight and wait, fight and wait, for things that should have happened but haven’t.’ ”

Later that day, on stage at Northwestern High School, Obama referred to the conversation.

“I think it was a pastor who told me, ‘You know, it made us feel like we didn’t count,’ ” the president said. “And you can’t have a democracy where people feel like they don’t count, where people feel like they’re not heard.”

That same pastor now comes to the pulpit each Sunday determined to deliver a message of encouragement and perseverance.

Lately, he has relied on a passage from Ephesians, Chapter 6: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Mona Hanna-Attisha broke down and got a cat.

The orange tabby showed up not long after her younger daughter told her, “Mom, ever since you became famous, we never see you anymore, and we don’t have anybody to cuddle with.”

Since the 39-year-old pediatrician went public last fall with research detailing dangerously high lead levels in the blood of Flint children — a move that forced officials to finally acknowledge a public health catastrophe — her life has been a blur.

She has crisscrossed the country, reminding audiences that Flint’s crisis isn’t over. She has told college graduates that “there are Flints everywhere, injustices everywhere,” and that they must have the courage to act. She has continued seeing her young patients — and their anxious parents.

Month after month, she has felt the same sense of urgency.

“I have to keep talking about Flint, and I have to keep advocating for Flint. Because it’s been a year, but not much has changed. We to this day do not have safe drinking water. . . . It’s mind-boggling,” Hanna-Attisha says.

The crusading doctor — named by Time magazine as among the 100 most influential people in the world — tries to compensate for all the time she has missed with her own children, ages 8 and 10. She makes it to as many soccer games as she can and hopes the new cat, Simba, can stay on cuddling duty until her life regains some normalcy.

But she also suspects her girls understand what’s at stake.

“I think they very much recognize the importance of the work,” she says. “They see that I’m a mom to a lot of kids now.”



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