Collegiate Times writer Caleb Govoruhk traveled along with volunteers from Virginia Tech to distribute bottled water to residents of the City of Flint. The three-day-long trip was sponsored by Virginia Tech’s SGA.
Hanafi Abdul Malik's handshake was warm in the frozen air of Flint, Michigan. A man of 68, he had the spirit of a younger man, smiling as the snow fell on his cotton hat. He had agreed to meet us, a group of seven Virginia Tech students visiting Flint as part of a service trip organized by the university's student government association.
As he led the group of seven into The Muslim House, Inc., a drafty former residence on Martin Luther King Avenue, we noticed the cases of bottled water stacked on the porch as the blowing snow covered them.
It required persistent force to open the door, for more cases of water were stacked inside to the left, obstructing the door's path.
"All the way from Virginia!" Malik said in his resonant voice as he shook each person's hand. "What a strong name," he said to me, commenting on the Biblical roots of the name "Caleb."
He arranged seven chairs in a circle in the building's makeshift office and brought in two propane heaters, as the old house did not have central heating.
As we discussed the issues with Flint's water, Malik recalled his childhood, comparing Flint's present perils to his experiences during the 1950s and 1960s in segregated Oklahoma. According to him, Flint's demographics and perceived national insignificance contribute to why the water crisis will take so long to be completely resolved.
"If this had been anywhere other than Flint, Michigan, they'd have had the money here, it would have been done, and it wouldn't have taken long," Malik said.
Karen Weaver, the mayor of Flint, projected that it would cost as much as $1.5 billion to replace the city's water infrastructure. At the present time, it will take at least 10 years before the entire system is safe and functional again.
"We have money to go to Afghanistan, Pakistan, anywhere we want to go," Malik said. "The president can sign an executive order tonight and Monday morning have the money here. To me, it's just pure politics, what's going on here. Don't be deluded into thinking that we're going to have a big rejuvenation here within the next year or so."
The group from Virginia Tech gave out water at water distribution centers and served breakfast to underprivileged residents at The First Presbyterian Church in downtown Flint on Sunday morning, April 10. The service trip allowed students to experience firsthand the issues that fellow Americans are experiencing concerning the availability of an imperative resource that is often taken for granted. The SGA’s goal is to arrange more trips to to Flint to assist with the ongoing water issues as the city copes with this major crisis.
Flint lies approximately 70 miles away from America's Motor City. The City of Flint was once popularly and is still occasionally referred to as “Vehicle City” due to its position as a leading American manufacturer of carriages and other vehicles and its significance as the city where General Motors was founded in 1908.
In April 2014, in an effort to save $5 million over two years, Flint stopped purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit and instead treated its own water from the Flint River, the designated backup water source for years. After residents complained about the water's taste, color and odor, for which the cold weather, aging pipes and city's population decline were blamed, initial tests revealed contradictory results regarding the water's safety.
In January 2015, the City of Detroit offered to reconnect Flint to its water system, waiving the $4 million connection fee. This was declined by Flint's (since resigned) emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, whose department indicated in a memo that there was "no imminent threat to public health."
In September 2015, a team of Virginia Tech researchers, led by Professor Marc Edwards, determined that water from the Flint River (which is more corrosive due to a higher chlorine concentration) was leaching lead from the aging pipes. Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan (who is currently facing recall campaigns) declared Flint to be in a state of emergency in January 2016.
According to the EPA, pregnant and breastfeeding women and children should consume bottled water only, and adults and pets should only consume bottled water and water run through a filter (which is 99 percent effective at removing lead). Residents are advised to not ingest water when they bathe and must filter water before cooking, brushing their teeth or washing their faces. Boiling water does not remove lead.
Flint has recently returned to using water from Lake Huron. However, flushing the pipes will take time, and most will still need to be replaced with modern infrastructure.
So far, around 10,000 children have been exposed to lead, and several lawsuits have been filed against Michigan's governor, his agencies and the City of Flint. Both democratic presidential candidates have advocated for Snyder's recall.
Flint's economy was decimated by General Motor's 1999 decision to move its Buick manufacturing plant (a 235-acre site popularly known as “Buick City”) offices to Detroit and production operations to Mexico. Flint became known for its high crime rates in the mid-2000s, ranking among the most dangerous cities in America, with a per capita violent crime rate seven times higher than the national average.
From 2011 to 2015, Flint was under a state of financial emergency, its second in a decade. According to 2014 U.S. Census data, 41.6 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line, and only 11.3 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. In comparison, The City of Roanoke, a municipality with a comparable population, has a poverty rate of 21.9 percent, and 24.1 percent of its residents have a bachelor's degree or higher.
Larry Woods and Steve Ortell, members of the campus ministry group Christian Challenge at Michigan State University, which is about an hour away from Flint, volunteered their time to help distribute water to residents. For them, that decision was an easy one to make.
"(It is) just a way to really help and serve the people of Flint. They really are in a position where their survival can depend on people coming to care for them and help them," Woods said.
The trip to Flint was organized by the Student Government Association in cooperation with the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology, Venture Out, VT Engage, The Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
"If you want to see change in a situation like this, you cannot look to the legislators because they are the cause of it,” Malik said. "You judge a tree by its fruit, therefore, you judge a man by his works."