Home Opinion Here's to the Heroes of Flint

Here's to the Heroes of Flint

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The water situation of Flint Michigan remains in the news, and coverage is now expanding to where the story is being featured on the cable news networks almost hourly and in the print media on a daily basis. To review the issue, in 2014 the City of Flint switched from a clean water source to a polluted water source to save money, and now a few months later, lead levels in people's blood have shot upward and a full-blown health crisis in in progress as we speak.

Our coverage here, here, and here have detailed the ongoing efforts to cope with the crisis. A post by my colleague John Pennington details some of the challenges faced when seeking help from FEMA and Innovative Heroes. I went maybe a little off the rails or got a little preachy with my piece titled Integrity--but it's an emotional issue when children's health is at stake.

So let's start today's message by celebrating heroes. As of this writing, FEMA has deployed advisors to Flint in advance of a federal disaster declaration--a move both indicative of the seriousness of the situation and the desire for FEMA to lean forward in responding to the nation's crises. The Michigan National Guard has deployed personnel to assist with temporary water distribution until a permanent solution can be implemented.

These folks are heroes. They are the heroes we need. So the first cautionary tale to come from this disaster is this: To all ye of a certain political stripe that would seek to make government small enough to 'drown in a bathtub'--you would be taking these heroes away from us when we need them. (hint: that's not a good idea)

Next, let's talk about innovation. I'm a believer in innovation--I'm all for it. Perhaps what will come out of this is an innovative solution. That would be awesome. However, I don't believe that an innovative solution in this case is all that important. Consider the timeline:

  • April 2014: Flint switches from Lake Huron water to Flint river water.
  • September 2014: The first reports come out about elevated lead issues in children's blood.
  • October 2014: General Motors stops using Flint water because it damages their machinery.
  • January 2015: Flint refuses to return to its previous safe water supply.
  • February 2015: Levels of lead in Flint water rise to 104 PPB. 15 PPB is considered the safe level.
  • April 2015: The first child is diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Is this really an innovation issue? I mean, I'm probably missing something, but if you stick your hand under cold water, and then you move the handle to hot water and you start getting burned, then the solution appears to be to move the handle back to cold. And I haven't found anything in reviewing the news reports that indicates Flint couldn't just start buying clean water again. Somebody please tell me what I'm missing, because I don't get it.

The second cautionary tale, then, is this: When you know you have a problem, and the right solution is staring you in the face, don't go out of your way to make the issue more complicated. Once you've discovered you're doing the wrong thing, start doing the right thing. Better yet, surround yourself with enough knowledge that you don't ever do the wrong thing to begin with--especially where people's health is concerned.

The final point I will make here is what I discussed before--integrity. Again, a timeline:

  • September 2014: The first reports come out about elevated lead issues in children's blood.
  • October 2015: the Michigan governor appoints a panel to study the issue.

That represents an entire year of negligence on the part of elected officials that are charged with protecting the health and safety of citizens.

The final cautionary tale: Politicians come to office with their own agendas and interests, and often they're not YOUR agenda or interest. They get away with what they do because we don't pay attention; or we don't think we have influence; or we just naively think that all officials have good hearts and the public's best interest in mind. Sadly, we find out again and again that these attitudes can lead to tragedy.

We emergency managers, as I've noted before, are placed in special positions of public trust. I know we really want to view our jobs as being confined to preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery, and adaptation. We're good at those things, and should feel proud for it. But sometimes that focus fails us--which is what happened in Flint. Sometimes we have to expand our breadth of responsibility to prevent tragedy when politicians and an apathetic public don't care or appear to have no voice.

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.