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Flint prepares for the political spotlight to fade

Flint's water crisis may be an afterthought once Michigan's Tuesday primary is over. But for the affected citizens, the struggle is just beginning.
The City of Flint Water Plant is illuminated by moonlight on Jan. 23, 2016 in Flint, Mich. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty)
The City of Flint Water Plant is illuminated by moonlight on Jan. 23, 2016 in Flint, Mich. 

FLINT, Michigan — Phillip Wadsworth served 22 years as a pilot in the Air Force, reaching the rank of major after tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. When it came time to retire, he took his family to his hometown of Flint. It’s a decision he regrets every day, and one that has imperilled not only his family’s health, but his job, his home, and his finances.

“I’ve been all over the world, I never expected to see anything like this,” he said Sunday afternoon as National Guardsmen loaded cases of water bottles into his car and his wife wiped tears from her eyes.

RELATED: Mayor Weaver: Flint needs national attention

They had just returned from getting their blood tested for lead, and the outcome was distressing, especially for their daughter Whitney, 10, sitting in the back seat.

The results, resting on the dashboard, were bound in folders emblazoned with a 1-800 number for what he dubbed “predatory attorneys” — those who lure people in with free blood tests and then offer to take their case for 40 percent of whatever money they win in court. The Wadsworths knew better than to take the deal, but were sure others would sign.

Whitney’s school, Scott Elementary, was recently shut down -- one of more than 20 schools closed by the city in the past decade -- and she now travels to neighboring Burton to attend classes. Families of students there are still trying to get the school tested for lead.

Now Wadsworth is worried about his job as a private pilot, given the high-medical bar for his profession, and he and his wife feel trapped in their home after sinking so much of their money into it. Who would want to buy a house in Flint? They’re considering just abandoning it and moving elsewhere.

“We rebuilt their country,” Wadsworth said of Iraq and Afghanistan, “and we can’t build our own.”

Flint’s water crisis has been put in center of the national spotlight ahead of Tuesday's Michigan primary. But residents and officials, grateful for the attention and outpouring of support, are expecting to be forgotten once the candidates and the media they attract move on to other places with other tragedies and other needs.

Democratic Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton pledged to help Flint in a debate here Sunday night, which was added specially to the Democratic debate calendar to call attention to the water crisis.

“I'm really sorry that we have to be the example for the entire country, but the entire country needs to look and see what happened in Flint,” Mayor Karen Weaver told MSNBC. Still, she knows the attention won’t last. "It goes away. That's why we have to seize this opportunity right now, because there's only a window of time where certain things are going to be available. It's important for us to move quickly.”

Even under the best circumstances, it could take a year to replace corroded lead pipes in Flint. But it will take even longer to restore residents’ trust.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton: There are too many Flints

Downtown, someone has plastered large wanted posters for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who is blamed for switching Flint’s water to a dangerous source in order to save money. “Arrest Snyder” the poster declares, for “poisoning the people of Flint.”

Both Clinton and Sanders have called on Snyder to resign, and some here privately say they hope for a worse fate than even prison for the governor.

Snyder responded to the criticism by saying he will be here long after Clinton and Sanders head out of town. “In a few days, political candidates will be leaving Flint and Michigan,” he said on Twitter. “They will not be staying to help solve the crisis, but I am committed to the people of Flint.”

The candidates insisted otherwise. "I will be with Flint all the way through this crisis,” Clinton pledged during the debate. Sanders added: "At a certain point, the TV cameras and CNN is going to disappear, and then people are going to be left struggling in order to live in a safe and healthy community."

But doubts remain.

“I’m born and raised in Flint. I love my city. But this is garbage.”'

At the Sanders field office in downtown Flint, there’s a pile of water bottles in the corner and a sign out front that marks the location as a distribution point. When they set it up in early February, so many people came in asking for water that the campaign started giving it away, a supporter explained, as does Clinton’s Flint field office about 2.5 miles away.

Inside, and around town, some said their view on politics turned more radical after the water crisis. “This is Flint, Michigan. We’ve always been kind of the forgotten city,” said John Gagnon, a die-hard Sanders volunteer. He’s been working at Sanders’ field office every day since it opened, even while he’s finishing college and working as a engineer for a General Motors supplier.

Michelle Pfeiffer, whose husband ran for mayor of Flint as a Republican, said she was glad Sanders and Clinton came to town, though she would not be voting for either, and hopes the attention will pressure leaders. “I’m glad that we’ve got all the media,” she said. “I would like to see the Republicans stick their nose around here.”

Flint has been mostly absent from the Republican debate and stump speeches. “The politicizing of it, I think, is unfair,” Marco Rubio said

Jeanine Lawrence has been buying water for more than two years, suspecting something was off about the city's supply long before it was made public after some of her animals died and a friend at the GM plant said the company stopped using unfiltered Flint water.

RELATED: The Flint Water Crisis: A Timeline

“I’m born and raised in Flint. I love my city. But this is garbage,” she said.

Lawrence is active in politics and has encouraged people affected by the crisis to vote, but worries the events have only further undermined what little hope people had left for politics. “They think their vote won’t matter,” she lamented.

Sanders and Clinton, she said, came for the photo-op. “It’s political, that’s why they're here,” she said.

But hey, whatever the motive, any attention is good if it helps fix things, she said with a laugh. “I’m not leaving here because of this,” she declared as pulled away from a firehouse at dusk, freshly loaded with a backseat full of another batch of water bottles.