Is the Flint water crisis an 'emergency' or a 'disaster'? It’s a $90 million difference


FLINT, Mich.— President Obama has declared the Flint water crisis a federal emergency. He’s called it “inexplicable and inexcusable.” And he’s sympathized with the residents who have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead by their government.

“I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kid’s health could be at risk,” he said in Detroit on Wednesday.

But there are two words he hasn’t used: “national disaster.” The federal government has rejected state requests to declare the Flint water crisis a national disaster, a technical distinction that would provide the city with nearly $100 million more for bottled water, filters, and, eventually, new water pipes.

That would be an order of magnitude larger than the $5 million that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has earmarked for Flint since Obama declared a federal emergency last week. Gov. Rick Snyder asked for a disaster declaration and $96 million in aid, but FEMA rejected his appeal yesterday.

“The tragedy that we’re seeing in Flint is a manmade crisis,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at his briefing on Thursday, noting that federal disasters can legally only be declared only for a natural disaster or an “act of God.”

On Friday, Obama also granted $80 million to Michigan as part of a larger program to help local governments improve their water infrastructure. Many here, like filmmaker Michael Moore, are under the impression that the grant money was earmarked for Flint’s water crisis.

But that impression is incorrect. “We are waiting to see how much of the $80 million will be allocated to the City of Flint and how much of it will go elsewhere,” Mayor Karen Weaver said in a statement. The federal grant money will go to long-term repairs to the city’s water infrastructure, not to shorter-term responses like delivering bottled water and installing filters.

Still, those short-term efforts are ongoing. At five fire stations around the city, enormous pallets of bottled water cases have been trucked in. Locals drive up in a steady stream to pick up cases of water and filters, and National Guard members help carry the water out to residents’ cars, while others canvass neighborhoods and deliver water to the elderly and disabled.

The bottled water goes faster than you’d think. People use it for drinking, of course, but also cooking and brushing their teeth. Many Flint residents now use bottled water for cleaning, watering flowers, even doing laundry. Officials say Flint’s tap water is safe to bathe and shower in, but not everyone believes it. Water filters seem like a more sustainable solution, but they need to be replaced every few months.

It’s not clear how far the federal relief funds will go. Officials estimate that completely replacing the city’s pipes will cost $1.5 billion.

Some locals say the federal government needs to contribute more, especially considering the role that the federal Environmental Protection Agency played in the crisis. While state officials—especially the state-appointed emergency manager—are most directly to blame, EPA officials played down warnings about water problems for months, leaked emails have shown. The agency admitted this week that it should have acted sooner, and the regional EPA head resigned on Thursday.

At a privately-sponsored free blood testing event on Saturday, residents questioned why the situation didn’t merit a federal disaster declaration.

“Obviously it’s a disaster,” said lifelong Flint resident Santiago Espinoza, 23, as his three-year-old son played video games on his iPhone. “Would Obama be bringing his family here to drink the water? Would Governor Snyder?”

“It’s even scary to take a bath,” Espinoza added.

Meanwhile, donations are coming in from all over the country and the world. Mary Stevenson, the director of Center for Hope, a local charity, said people from around the midwest have loaded their cars up with bottled water and driven to Flint to donate it, while others around the country have shipped donations. A visitor from Sweden donated and installed a reverse osmosis filter in one of their homeless shelters on Thursday, she said.

“I’d feel more comfortable if there was a clear plan in place,” Stevenson told me. “We can’t rely on people donating water six months from now.”

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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