Recovering from the Flint Catastrophe: What is Flint doing? What would your community do?

For the third time in a decade, Michigan made national and international headlines for negative reasons.

Photo courtesy of Ronald Schuster.

By: Mark A. Wyckoff, FAICP, Editor, Planning & Zoning News, Vol. 34 No. 7, May 2016

Definitions of Catastrophe

An event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster. Oxford Dictionary

Sudden disaster of immense proportions that has severe consequences, often accompanied by destruction of assets and/or loss of life.


For the third time in a decade, Michigan made national and in­ternational headlines for negative reasons. First, as part of the Great Recession, it was the huge unemployment and collapse of the auto industry in 2008-10 which required a federal bailout. Then it was the Detroit bankruptcy, the first major city in the na­tion to default on its bills. Now it is citywide poisoning from lead in Flint’s drinking water caused by a series of bad decisions at every level of government. In each case, many people and businesses suffered. In particular,

  • Nearly 900,000 workers lost jobs in Michigan and several hundred thousand left the state to find jobs to support their families. Eight years later, many people are still unemployed or underemployed, and many others that want to work remain out of the labor force because of a lack of jobs that match their skills.
  • The Detroit bankruptcy left many businesses and investors that were holding city debts unpaid, or paid just pennies on the dollar. Pensioners on fixed incomes had the promise of their pensions severely cut and in some cases, health care and related benefits as well.
  • In Flint, the negative impacts were perhaps cruelest of all. People are trapped in homes and businesses with water they are afraid to drink, bathe in and use for nearly any purpose, while paying among the highest water rates of any commu­nity in America.

While the Legislature has recently provided temporary relief on the cost of water issue in Flint, the extreme challenge of simply trying to get through a day on bottled water is not simply inconve­nient, it is punishing. Imagine trying to shower, feed a pet, cook meals, clean dishes, mix beverages, do laundry and clean the house all on bottled water. Then repeat that every day, including constantly replenishing your bottled water supply and disposing of/recycling all your empty water bottles. Now imagine you are not just caring for yourself; you are a parent of a baby or young chil­dren, or trying to care for elderly parents. Or what if you owned a restaurant? Who would want to eat at your establishment? Would customers wonder what your water supply was for drinking water, cooking food or washing dishes? In Flint, each day is a trial with its own uncertainty, unique problems and punishments.

But even worse because of the lead poisoning, you don’t know how many IQ points have been lost in your children’s brain, or yours, or your loved ones. You don’t know how big of a threat remains, or how long until the problems are fixed. In that uncer­tainty, created by a series of bad government decisions, you do not know who to trust, and you probably have developed a grudge against government. How do you recover? How does the whole city recover?

Do not attempt to sugar coat these issues, Flint is in the middle of a catastrophe! In nearly all ways it is like the aftermath of a flood, tornado, hurricane or earthquake in terms of its impact. But in the most important way, it is different. While the human impact and negative impacts on homes and businesses are very similar, this catastrophe was not nature created, it was human created. That is why all the laws, procedures and support structures set up  to help with natural disasters are not being deployed. Legally, they cannot be. The emergency management laws were designed to be deployed to address natural, not man-made disasters.

While state and federal funds and program assistance are slow­ly, but steadily being deployed, and new laws are being enacted to send millions in recovery money to help Flint, the key step of replacing lead water service lines, and lead solder in plumbing pipes in old homes has hardly begun and needs to get underway in a massive way – immediately! Residents and business own­ers are rightfully indignant and filled with anger and impatience. Besides the huge health risks from lead contaminated water and the potential for Legionnaires Disease (and other potential health problems such as the as yet undiagnosed skin disorders), their homes and businesses have lost much of their value. How can they sell if they wanted to? No one will buy. They are trapped. With falling land values and diminished property taxes, how can the city provide services? How can existing employers attract new workers? Who will develop new businesses and bring new jobs to the city?

In this catastrophe, most of the attention is focused on feder­al and state government solutions because of the scale of the problem, and because investigations to date place much of the responsibility for the catastrophe there. Also, Flint has been on the verge of bankruptcy for years. It has been under emergency financial managers several times. As a result, the city does not have the financial wherewithal to self-fund its recovery. So how does the city come back? The costs will be enormous. There is fear that government dollars will never be enough, especially as relates to the likely long-term services needed for children who were probably harmed the most, because of the much higher threats that lead poses to young growing brains.

While many have been pondering this question for several months -- individual people, organizations (especially founda­tions) and businesses in Flint have not waited for government to act. They have bravely started to rebuild from within. The feature article tells some of these local stories. Together they provide hope for a successful recovery, but also guidance to other com­munities facing a future disaster, because many of these local initiatives are replicable elsewhere. The recent announcement of $125 million in commitments from 10 foundations will also help. But the state is not standing still either. A plan to prevent the prob­lem from happening again elsewhere in the state has already been prepared. Separate articles in this issue address each of these efforts.

What would your community do?

Ask yourself what would your community do if it were ravaged by a tornado or flood, and largely destroyed? This type of natural disaster has happened enough times, that there is a body of liter­ature that can be used as a playbook to map out a recovery strat­egy that is logical, systematic and efficient in order to help get the community back on its feet in as short a time as possible (which may still be a decade). But helping a large community come back from water poisoning is a new challenge that involves much more than addressing the short and long-term health issues; it involves replacing extensive infrastructure; and, it involves the enormous challenge of re-building trust.

Due to the sorry state of urban infrastructure throughout Michi­gan and the nation, there will be more Flint-type catastrophes, but most likely at a smaller geographic scale (like a neighborhood) and with fewer injured. News reports are starting to build on the number of communities that have a lead drinking water problem at differing scales. But crumbling infrastructure is more than just water lines, and the failure to maintain infrastructure for decades only ensures that at some point, more government-caused neglect will result in more people and businesses harmed. As localities, states and the nation, we must realistically confront the crumbling infrastructure issue soon, comprehensively and systematically.

As many have warned, the Baby Boomers and older genera­tions have been borrowing from younger generations for a long time by continuing to ‘kick the can’ to the next generation. It is past time for that to stop. Hopefully the Governor’s 21st Century In­frastructure Commission (summarized in the April issue of PZN), can come up with reasonable and effective recommendations for Michigan to get started on—but everyone must acknowledge right now, that significant new taxes and fees will be involved. All infrastructure requires maintenance to remain effective, and deferred maintenance results in higher repair costs. We have de­ferred maintenance on all public infrastructure for a long time and the bills are starting to come due. We must not simply rely on hope that government officials will provide leadership soon, as the phrase ‘not in my term of office’ is indicative of why ‘kicking the can down the road’ has been the modus operandi for decades.

No, citizens must begin to demand that the problems in Flint be fixed ASAP, and that new laws and processes be put in place to prevent them from happening elsewhere. This must occur across ALL infrastructure, not just water infrastructure, and it must hap­pen fast. PZN will provide much more background on infrastructure policy issues over the next year in an effort to better inform readers of the full scope and complexity of the infrastructure problem.

Unfortunately, there is another dimension to this threat. We face the prospects of another Flint, not just from crumbling infra­structure, but also from terrorist threats. Homeland Security has warned since 911 that public water supplies are exposed to the potential for mass poisoning; that electric, natural gas, and tele­communication systems are exposed to tampering and outright destruction with a few well-placed bombs. Prevention will require continued vigilance, but the problems associated with a terrorist attack on infrastructure is much harder to contain if the basic in­frastructure itself is not in good repair. We have already seen ex­tensive regional brownouts where electric facilities became over­loaded and brought down electric service across an entire region for several days—and not as a result of a terrorist attack. What if electricity were lost for a week, or if a poisoned water supply killed thousands and hospitalized tens of thousands in a few days?

In all of these man-made catastrophes, the populations of whole communities could be seriously harmed, even devastat­ed, if not destroyed. Citizens expect government to keep public infrastructure and services in good shape, and to prevent harm from mistakes, deferred maintenance or terrorist acts. But as we have seen in Flint, this did not happen. Government failed, but so did many other professionals before a few stood up (like Dr. Marc Edwards, and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha) and said “Enough is enough, there is a serious problem here; people are being poi­soned.” The standard for doctors since Hippocrates, should be the first standard for all professions: ‘Do No Harm!’ Clearly that standard was violated several times in Flint. But all professionals, including planners, engineers and state and federal administra­tors, must do better in the future. Their professional practice must commit to ‘Do No Harm!’

But enough of the rambling of an old planner, it is time to hear of the heartening stories of some of the positive things happening in Flint. Perhaps they will inspire you to take similar actions in your own communities to build up your resilience to disaster or catas­trophe, as it is reasonable to assume over the next decade that many other communities will be facing infrastructure problems similar to those facing Flint now – but hopefully not as severe. In the end, it comes down to foresight, leadership, and wise targeted action in partnership with others that will either save or prevent a community from catastrophe, or restore a community after one occurs. To a great extent this is a choice. Is your community going to wait for a natural or infrastructure disaster, or will it take prudent actions to prevent one? Hopefully the stories in this issue will help you think more deeply about this choice – while you still have one.

Questions to Discuss at the Next Planning Commission and City Council or Township Board Meeting

  • Do any of the homes or schools in your community have lead service lines? If you don’t know, you need to find out soon. What has the community already done to educate residents (especially those with young children) of the severe health threats of drinking water with high lead levels? Has the community informed residents of the positive benefits of water filters in getting the lead out of the water? Have residents been informed of foods that help prevent lead concentration in the body? [See sidebar below with additional information sources on preventing lead in drinking water and nutritional food choices.]
  • Are any of these lead service lines connected to public water systems? If yes, what immediate plans does the community have to remove and replace those service lines? Are they privately owned, or owned by a local public utility (if private, that will require homeowner agreement and participation in removal)?
  • What system wide improvements are needed in the whole public water distribution system? What is the plan to make those improvements? Are the costs of these improvements built in to the annual capital improvements plan (CIP)? Is that plan brought before the planning commission for review and approval as required by the Michigan Planning Enabling Act, PA 33 of 2008, MCL 125.3801 et seq., especially sections 61-67?
  • Are other capital improvements included in the CIP (like roads, storm water, sewer lines, parks, recreation, sidewalks, bike paths, etc.)? Are major repairs, improvements or new capital improvements annually reviewed by the planning commission for consistency with the local Master Plan? If not, why not (as it is a requirement of the Michigan Planning Enabling Act)?
  • How fully are the various infrastructure systems addressed in the Master Plan? If not fully, or some are omitted, why? What can be done to fix the omission?

Additional Information Sources On Preventing Lead In Drinking Water

Did you find this article useful?