Inspired to visit by a letter from an 8-year-old Flint girl, Obama told an audience of about 1,000 locals that he came to listen to their concerns about a water-contamination crisis.“That’s why I’m here,” he said at Flint Northwestern High School. “To tell you directly that I see you, and I hear you.”
He added, “I also came here to tell you that I’ve got your back. That we’re paying attention.”
Obama portrayed Flint’s lead-pollution crisis as the result of a “corrosive attitude” in American politics that derides government regulation and feeds neglect of poor communities.
“It’s a mindset that says environmental rules designed to keep your water clean or your air clean are options, or not that important, or will unnecessarily burden businesses or taxpayers,” Obama said.
But he also warned that it would take a long time for Flint to rebuild its water system, including a massive pipe-replacement program. He urged residents to install filters in the meantime. And he encouraged the city not to fall into despair, or believe that Flint’s children were now doomed to lifelong struggle. “Don’t lose hope,” Obama said.
The president’s visit was prompted by a letter from 8-year-old Mari Copeny, a young activist who said of the water, “it smells like bleach and old fish.”
Twice during his visit to Flint — once during a briefing with federal officials, and again in his speech at the local high school — Obama took symbolic sips from a glass of Flint tap water.
“Filtered water is safe, and it works,” he said at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
He acknowledged that there was a “lot of suspicion” about whether the water was drinkable. But he added, “Working with the state and the city, filters are now available for everyone in the city.”
At the end of the briefing, he said the EPA had deemed filter water safe for everyone except for kids under six and pregnant women.
The president acknowledged that the impoverished city of Flint had suffered long before the water crisis and said he hoped Flint would become better than ever.
“We have to take what has been a crisis and turn this into an opportunity to rebuild Flint even better than before,” he said.
The river’s high salt content corroded pipes, allowing lead to leach into the water. Children started testing positive for dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to a variety of health issues, including brain damage.Among those to greet Obama at the Flint airport was Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who has come under harsh criticism for how his administration has handled the crisis, a result of the city changing its water source from treated water in Detroit to the Flint River in 2013. He was booed when Obama introduced him at the high school.
The Environmental Protection Agency has come under fire for not getting more involved in Flint, with numerous lawmakers calling for its chief, Gina McCarthy, to resign.
Both McCarthy and the governor have expressed remorse for the water crisis, but McCarthy said because it happened under a state-appointed emergency manager, “that precluded us from being able to jump in to the rescue.”Officials have tried to assure residents that filtered tap water is safe to drink, and state lawmakers have put millions of dollars of funding into helping the city since the public health emergency was confirmed seven months ago.
Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint in January, which gave $5 million in federal aid to assist with the crisis, but due to federal law restrictions, he denied Snyder’s request for a disaster declaration — a designation that only natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods, qualify for.
Obama thanked federal officials, including Snyder and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, on Wednesday. And while he gave his vote of confidence to the safety of the filtered water, he also urged families to have their children checked for lead exposure.
“Kids are resilient,” he said. “Every kid in Flint is special and has capacity and can do great things.”
This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com.