Hank Winchester: 10 years later, effects of Flint water crisis remain

Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray ruled Friday in favor of Michigan's environmental department, which set the tougher regulations last year.

Flint, 10 years later: This week marks 10 years since the start of the Flint water crisis, and while officials say the water is now safe, many residents continue to live with the consequences. Tonight at 8 p.m. on Local 4+, a look back at what happened and where things stand today. Stream here tonight.

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Ten years later. How can that be? Time really does fly.

I still remember being called into my then-boss’s office. Kim called me and a few other investigative reporters in to discuss the “water problem” still occurring in Flint. This was in early January 2016.

We had been aware of the issues there for much of 2015, but there wasn’t a significant focus on Flint. It seemed like the local stations in the Flint market were covering these events and updates, but in early January, the network called and asked us to delve deeper.

I went first. I drove up Interstate 75 on a cold and snowy day, expecting to meet a few people concerned about the quality of the water. What I saw still haunts me. I turned off the highway onto Saginaw Street near one of the main fire stations. In the cold and snow, I saw a line about half a mile long winding through the city streets. These were seniors, parents, and children, all waiting outside to receive a free case of water. And then, by the time I started talking to people in line, the water ran out. No more water for a few days. What! How was this happening in Michigan — in the US — in 2016? Why was no one here to help? I was stunned, saddened, and almost speechless.

I remember calling my boss and feeling an enormous sense of guilt that we weren’t up here every single day — that we weren’t demanding change. From that moment on, everything changed. I was in Flint every single day for more than four months. After our initial reports reached the networks, it seemed the whole world was now interested in Flint. This wasn’t because of me; it was because the people were finally getting an opportunity to be heard, and NBC was helping to spread this message (especially Rachel Maddow on MSNBC). The first press conference I attended that week with Governor Snyder in Flint had only me and the Flint stations. A week later, there were 200 cameras from around the world. The world was now watching.

I remember being at an event where they were testing the lead levels of small children. The kids were screaming as they feared the finger poke, and the parents were crying simply because they were scared.

I remember meeting the Robinson family. Their three boys had rashes, and their parents used bottled water to give them baths, even to brush their teeth. I remember meeting the Wilson family. Their dad was battling Legionnaires’ disease. I remember meeting Sincere Smith, the young boy whose face was on the cover of Time Magazine. I saw Trump, Clinton, Cher, and a host of others and wondered, will they change Flint?

And I remember meeting Dr. Mona. She helped expose the problem. I knew instantly she would work to make this right, and I was right.

Covering Flint was taxing. I felt guilty. I lived just 45 minutes north, and my water was fine. I felt so bad for the struggling parents and suffering children. I felt hopeless on some days and filled with optimism on others. The emotional roller coaster was in full effect. I wondered if Flint would ever be okay — would the people who live here ever have a shot at a normal life? I also remember being mad that this even happened in the first place. If this happened in Grosse Pointe or Birmingham, would it take more than a year for anyone to even focus on the issue? How sad.

Today, though a lot of work still needs to be done, I remain hopeful that Flint is on the right track. Dr. Mona just launched a new program to help infants and their parents. It’s a game-changer.

The financial settlement is worked out. And while some are upset with the dollar amount, the money should start flowing soon. The pipes are being changed (most replaced now), and it has been encouraging to see the work done.

The reality here, though, is most will never trust the water no matter how much testing shows it’s safe. They will never drink out of a faucet again. Do you blame them?

About the Author

Hank Winchester is Local 4’s Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV’s “Help Me Hank” Consumer Unit. Hank works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off people in our community.

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