In trying to solve one water crisis, the city of Flint, Michigan, has inadvertently created a new, even bigger one — and it’s coming at the cost of children’s health.
Now, after tests have shown elevated lead levels in the blood of some local children, the mayor of Flint has declared a state of emergency to pave the way for possible government disaster aid.
“I can tell you today that we need state and federal assistance for the people to feel comfortable. We need some help,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference, after first announcing the disaster declaration Monday.
“There’s no question in my mind that Flint is not able to take on this challenge by ourselves,” she added as residents in attendance broke out in applause.
Weaver was elected in November, running on the promise that she would declare the state of emergency in the city of 99,700.
She said damage to children caused by lead exposure is irreversible, and that the city will need to spend more on special education and mental health services as a result.
Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children, health officials warn.
Genesee County, where Flint is located, earlier declared a public health emergency. Officials have told Flint residents not to drink unfiltered tap water.
Flint’s water woes are only the latest for a community that saw its financial fortunes sink with the downturn of the American auto industry.
Flint switched from Detroit’s water system last year to the Flint River as part of a cost-cutting move while under the state’s emergency financial management. Officials had estimated the cash-strapped city would save about $5 million in less than two years because of the change.
Tapping from the Flint River was supposed to be an interim source until the city could join a new system getting water from Lake Huron.
But residents complained about the taste, smell and appearance of the water. Officials maintained the water met safety standards, but children were later found to have elevated lead levels in their blood and it was determined that corrosive river water was drawing lead from aging underground pipes.
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Flint returned to Detroit’s system in October, but the damage was apparently done.
“So far, what we’ve had is Band-Aid fixes. We have the filter program, we have talked about diets for lead exposure, and don’t get me wrong, we want these things to continue,” Weaver said at a City Council meeting Monday night, according to NBC affiliate WEYI. “We need all of that, but it’s not enough.”
Residents flooded City Hall in protest this year saying their children were being poisoned; water filters and bottled water were handed out as part of a government response.
Flint mom Lee Anne Walters told NBC News in October that the tap water was to blame for her son, Garrett, seeing his lead levels triple.
“I’m all for doing what’s in the best interest of our city,” Walters said about the initial move to switch water systems. “But if you’re going to do this, you better make sure it’s safe — and they didn’t.”
Ron Leix, a spokesman for the state Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division, said county commissioners would need to support Flint’s disaster declaration in order for financial aid to be considered.
And that could take time.
“It’s not like FEMA will come here on a magic carpet,” Leix told NBC News on Tuesday. “It can be a lengthy process.”
Already, county officials have signaled they may not back Weaver’s request. Genesee County board Chairman Jamie Curtis said he has no plans to call a special meeting to vote on supporting the disaster aid, reported MLive.com
A call to the county Board of Commissioners went unanswered Tuesday afternoon.
Leix, meanwhile, said it’s unclear how much money Flint would be able to collect in government aid even if the process does move forward. “We haven’t seen the damage assessment,” he added.
This article first appeared on NBCNews.com.