FLINT, Mich. — “It all started before Christmas. We knew something was wrong with the water.”
Vicky Schultz is president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties, headquartered in Flint, Mich. In a recent interview, she recounted the development of the city’s public-health crisis over the last two years.
“Everybody knew that the water had an orange tint. Everyone talked about the smell of it,” she told CNA.
Schultz recalled that the discoloration was so pronounced that it could be seen yards and yards away. Looking out from her office, she watched as fire hydrants were flushed out: “It could be running for hours, and it was still orange coming out.”
In recent months, the employees at Catholic Charities, which were affected by the water pollution themselves, have been a vital resource for a struggling community.
“We’re all doing whatever it takes at ground level to just do what we’re doing, serve our communities and keep our head above water,” Schulz said.
The problems with Flint’s tap water go back to 2014. In April of that year, the city of Flint switched water sources: It stopped purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit and began sourcing its own water from the Flint River as part of a larger batch of cost-saving measures. The river was a longtime disposal site for industrial waste from automobile companies, sewage and local runoff, but local city official celebrated the switch with a toast of city water inside the Flint water-treatment facility.
Immediately, locals began complaining that the water smelled bad, it was rust-colored, and it tasted strange. Some people started to develop rashes or intestinal issues, while others started losing their hair after drinking, bathing and swimming in the water. In August 2014, Flint officials advised the public to begin boiling their water for safety: E. Coli was found in the water.
Schultz and countless others were concerned. “I was going to some city meetings saying, ‘What’s going on?’ It was explained to us [that]… they were treating it.”
Yet, despite the assurances that the strange tastes, smells and colors were part of the treatment process, the city also began distributing bottles of water, including at one Catholic Charities site.
Schultz said the request was confusing. “I’m scratching my head thinking, ‘If there’s nothing wrong with the water, why are we giving out cases of water?’” she recalled, saying that she approached the mayor at one water-distribution event. “I can remember saying to the mayor, ‘If there’s nothing wrong with the water, you guys on city council should be drinking it, showing and demonstrating to the general public it was safe.’”
But the water was not safe. In June 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found evidence of lead in the water, although city and state officials dismissed the findings and maintained the lead levels were the result of plumbing issues in the house of a local activist who raised the alarm. While local and state officials assured the EPA that they were following federal guidelines requiring corrosion control for its treatment plant and municipal pipes, these measures were never put into place. When testing for lead in 2015, few samples were taken, and samples that were taken were done improperly. In addition, two samples that would have indicated an “actionable” lead issue and required public notification were discarded.
By September 2015, pediatricians in Flint found that the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled, from 2.1% to 4% city wide and were even higher — 6.3% — in some neighborhoods. Lead poisoning impacts every major bodily system, including the kidneys, heart, reproductive system and brain. The heavy metal also interferes with nervous-system development in children, potentially leading to developmental and learning disabilities, and has been linked to some mood disorders. In severe cases, lead poisoning can lead to coma or death.
In October 2015, the city and the state admitted the extent of the issues with the water supply and again began purchasing water from Detroit. However, concerns remain, due to the pipe corrosion that the Flint River water caused in the pipes, creating a continued leaching of lead.
For the people of Flint, this means continuing to use filtered or bottled water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing.
Catholic Charities is helping, starting with the most vulnerable: children, infants and the unborn.
“Since about October, November, we’ve been giving either a case of water or a gallon jug of water to every mother coming to pick up diapers,” Schultz said, so that mothers can use fresh water in formula and other care for their children.
The organization is also ensuring that its foster children receive the care, and access to clean water, they need. This means lead tests, water filters and regular cases of water. The same is true for the other houses run by Catholic Charities and the services that it offers.
In addition, the water crisis is forcing the organization to reconsider its future plans. Schultz told CNA that she has been planning for years to create a space for homeless clients in Flint to shower and do laundry, and the project was moving forward.
Now, however, those plans have to be reconsidered. “I don’t know if we’ve even incorporated anything about a water-filtration system. And now I’m thinking we have to do that,” she said. “We have to think ahead because, if the city doesn’t have this resolved, and we’re in the process of renovating a building, we have to think about it.” Schultz noted that the need to add filtration systems is impacting hospitals, schools and other community services.
The challenges brought by the water crisis raise serious questions as to what the future of Catholic Charities services will look like. “There’s so many pieces, and we’re not set up with the infrastructure to deal with the crisis,” Schultz admitted.
Addressing mental-health needs, both from the emotional impact of the crisis and from the physical impact of the lead poisoning itself, is another prime concern. “We’ve got a lot of people very anxious,” she explained. “They’re worried about their children.”
Health care for the children suffering from lead poisoning is a grave concern. Children bearing the consequences of water contamination will be in even greater need for access to healthy, balanced and safe meals for the best outcomes, she explained.
And even so, she added, “It’s lead poisoning. It’s never reversible.”
“Are we going to pay for this for the next 20-something years of these kids’ lives in school and everything else?” she questioned. “I don’t know what this means for the future, for these kids who could be affected by this lead.”
Schultz said she is also concerned about how to fund a long-term response to the water contamination. Flint was already facing high poverty levels before the crisis, she explained, and it is uncertain whether money to back any possible solution will materialize.
The workers at Catholic Charities are not immune from the water crisis, Schultz noted, explaining that this makes the task even more difficult, particularly when it comes to counseling people and reassuring them when at times it is tough to know what information is true.
But despite the challenges before them, Catholic Charities will “carry on,” she told CNA. “We’re trying. I just don’t think we were prepared for anything like this, and we’re just trying to find our way through it.”
Still, hope remains. Since the news of the situation in Flint has spread, Schultz has been floored by the public concern, which she calls “a Godsend.”
“It’s been crazy, because we’re getting calls from all over the country,” she said. “It is unbelievable the outpouring of support, concern — we know it’s across the entire nation.”
However, even the flood of donations has presented challenges, such as finding adequate forklifts and storage space to handle the donated water. Catholic Charities is working with organizations like the American Red Cross and other charities to coordinate water distribution.
For those interested in supporting Catholic Charities’ response to the water crisis, the organization has set up a GoFundMe page for monetary donations, which will be used both for clean water and future water-related needs. Information can also be found on its “Flint Water Recovery” page.
Flint residents in need of clean water can find resources and aid at the Center for Hope at 517 Fifth Ave., at its soup kitchen, on 735 Stewart St., and at local fire stations.
Through the challenges that lie ahead, Catholic Charities will stay and serve the community, Schultz stressed.
“We’re resilient; we’re gonna be here. It might look different, but we’re going to be here to serve the community.”