Life in Flint: A logistical, financial and health nightmare

  • Rachel Pintacura and Nicholas Hicks have three children and are expecting their fourth. Joshua is 3, Noleiana is 2, and Alecianal is 1. The two have been a couple since junior high and married in 2014. Born and raised in Flint, Rachel and Nicholas bought their house a little over a year ago. But for much of last year, if not sooner, Flint’s water was tainted with lead, a well-known toxin that can do irreversible damage to the brain.
  • The young couple switched to bottled water to wash dishes and cook almost four months ago. Researchers have connected lead to IQ loss, behavioral problems, and a cascading list of poor health outcomes, especially in children. There is no “safe” level of lead in the water, experts say.
  • Nearly two years ago, residents of Flint started drinking water from this brown, soupy river that flows through their town. The water smelled bad, tasted bad, and looked bad. Turns out, it was also toxic. Here, the Flint River is seen from downtown Flint, Mich., on Jan. 24, 2016. 
  • In this 100,000 person city — the cradle of Buick and the United Auto Workers, the former factory floor for General Motors — there is no drinkable water flowing from its taps. Here, Rachel Pintacura gives her children a bath at their home on Jan. 25, 2016. Unable to get a filtration system, Rachel and her husband Nicholas Hicks still bathe their children in tap water, but the kids have developed blisters and flaking skin on their feet, and over the past six months they have been nearly constantly sick.
  • Rachel Pintacura and Nicholas Hicks are expecting their fourth child. The couple would like to move out of Flint but cannot sell their house. 
  • The two have been a couple since junior high school and married in 2014. State and city officials say they are developing long-term help for kids in Flint who have been exposed to alarming levels of lead, and whose symptoms, such as delayed speech, difficulty learning, troubled motor skills, could lay dormant for years. They also say they are investigating the source of the problem and the bearer of blame. The governor or members of his administration may even face criminal charges, according to the Michigan attorney general. 
  • Nicholas Hicks and his family at their home in Flint. The city is in a state of emergency, searching for short-term fixes and long-term answers to a man-made lead crisis.
  • A view of the Flint River in downtown Flint, Mich., Jan. 24, 2016.
  • Nakia Wiley’s children and grandchildren play in the kitchen next to a mountain of bottled water at her Flint, Mich., home. The family uses the bottled water for the many children often at their house.
  • Residents in Flint are still being charged for water service. On Jan. 25, 2016, residents protested their water bills outside City Hall.
  • LaRee Tibbitts uses bottled water to give her 18-month-old daughter, Katniss Hodges, a bath in the kitchen of her Flint, Mich., home. Tibbitts’s husband, Shayne Hodges, bought the house thinking he was providing well for his children. Like many Flint residents, Hodges feels guilty that his children may have been exposed to lead in the water. The family uses bottled water and filters, and bathes their children in bottled water.
  • Activists from the organization New Era Detroit pose for a photograph on Jan. 23, 2016, after loading water onto a truck to be delivered to residents in Flint, Mich. 
  • Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver of Flint, Mich., speaks with her staff on Jan. 26, 2016, after returning to Flint from Washington D.C. where she met with President Obama about the city’s water crisis.
  • A home in Flint, Mich., photographed on Jan. 26, 2016.
  • Phlebotomist Chelsea Dunn draws blood for a lead test from Edward Sewell as her son looks on at a free testing drive by Insight Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroscience (IINN) on Jan. 23, 2016. Sewell has suffered from large rashes over his skin for the past year. Dunn had her blood tested, as well as that of her three children, then volunteered her time for the afternoon. IINN had expected around 10 patients to show for testing and ended up seeing over four times that amount.
  • Raushawnda Harper feeds her daughter, Myla McCann, as her son Marcus McCann sits next to her while they wait to get tested for lead at “Family Fun Night,” a lead-testing event at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Mich. Dustin Locke and his daughter Ava are also among those waiting to get tested.
  • Raushawnda Harper’s daughter, Myla McCann, and son, Marcus McCann, get their hands washed by a nurse before they are tested for lead at a lead testing event at Eisenhower Elementary School.
  • Families register for lead testing at “Family Fun Night,” a lead-testing event held at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Mich., on Jan. 26, 2016.
  • Kanari Vanburen plays on a bed at his grandmother’s house in Flint, Mich., Jan. 26, 2016. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality has admitted to a “mistake” and officials say they driving toward a solution, but residents in Flint continue to wait for their lives to return to normal.

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FLINT, Michigan — Nearly two years ago, residents here started drinking water from the brown, soupy river that flows through their town. The water smelled bad, tasted bad, and looked bad. Turns out, it was also toxic.

Now the city is in a state of emergency, searching for short-term fixes and long-term answers to a man-made lead crisis. On Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow will host a televised town hall, “American Disaster: Flint Water Crisis,” featuring Flint families, community leaders, politicians, doctors, and scientists. The goal is an early autopsy of the hows and the whys, not to mention the what-nows. 

For the past few days, photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier has taken a more documentary approach, focusing on the basic question of what it’s like to live in Flint amid such an extraordinary disaster. This is a 100,000 person city — the cradle of Buick and the United Auto Workers, the former factory floor for General Motors — without drinkable water flowing from its taps. 

That’s a logistical, financial and domestic nightmare. Every day the first question for people is the same: Do we have enough water? If not, it’s off to the fire station or the community center, where a mix of state and private funds have paid for daily bottled water drops. 

It’s also a health nightmare. Flint residents now use bottled water to drink, cook and bathe, warming it in the microwave and then rubbing themselves down. For the children of Flint, there is no bath time, only wet-towel time. 

But currently, there is no good alternative for kids here. Flint’s water has been tainted with lead — a well-known toxin that can do irreversible damage to the brain — for much of last year, if not further backThe Flint River water corroded the city’s pipes, which leached lead and iron into the water, possibly also creating incubators for a deadly explosion of legionella, a waterborne bacteria. 

Researchers have connected lead poisoning to IQ loss, behavioral problems, and a cascading list of poor health outcomes, especially in children. There is no “safe” level of lead in the water, experts say.

And the threat to the children of Flint is more than theoretical. In a paper published last November, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, reported that “blood lead levels” — in children younger than 6 — had spiked throughout Flint. In some neighborhoods, the percentage of kids with significant amounts of lead in their systems had doubled and tripled. 

State and city officials say they are developing long-term help for these kids, whose symptoms — delayed speech, difficulty learning, troubled motor skills — could lay dormant for years. 

And all of this could have been prevented. If the state had added corrosion controls to the water, it would have been drinkable. The preventive effort would have cost about $100 a day, researchers say. Now it may cost as much as $1.5 billion to fix, according to Flint’s mayor. 

Officials say they are investigating the source of the problem and the bearer of blame. The governor or members of his administration may even face criminal charges, according to the Michigan attorney general. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality has admitted to a “mistake.” Everyone says they driving toward a solution.

In the meantime, Flint residents are living like refugees in their own city — with no timetable for returning to normal. 

Danny Wilcox Frazier is a documentary photographer based in Iowa.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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