By Paul Egan and Katrease Stafford
President Barack Obama had a straightforward message Wednesday for Flint residents: "I've got your back."
The president delivered that message to a crowd of about 1,000 people -- many of them high school students -- at Northwestern High School.
"A lot of you are scared; all of you feel let down," Obama said. "I am confident that Flint will come back," he said. And, "I will not rest ... until every drop of water that flows to your home is safe to drink, and safe to cook with, and safe to bathe in, because that's part of the basic responsibilities of a government in the United States of America."
Wednesday's visit was the president's first to Flint since the water crisis began. Lead began leaching into the city's drinking water in April of 2014 because of mistakes made when the city switched its drinking water source to the Flint River from Lake Huron while Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. The state acknowledged a lead poisoning problem around Oct. 1, after months of denials.
Since then, the Legislature has appropriated tens of millions of dollars and Gov. Rick Snyder has requested more than $100 million more to address the infrastructure and the long- and short-term health problems.
Snyder rode with Obama in the presidential limousine from the airport to a briefing at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint and the two leaders had "a strong, constructive discussion about how all levels of government can work together," Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said.
During his speech, Obama ran through a brief history of the water crisis and said poor decisions were made after the state appointed a Flint emergency manager, whose mandate was cost-cutting.
"I do not believe that anyone consciously wanted to hurt the people of Flint," he said. But a "corrosive" attitude that less government and fewer regulations is better, contributed to it, he said.
"This attitude that government is always the enemy forgets that ... government is us," he said.
Obama said it will take a concerted effort by all levels of government to solve Flint's problems.
"Everybody is going to have to work together to get this done," and "it's not going to happen overnight." The president said. "It's not enough just to fix the water; we've got to fix the culture of neglect."
Earlier, Snyder was loudly booed and heckled as he apologized to the large crowd and vowed to fix the water problem in Flint. And Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told the crowd she believes Obama's visit will result in everyone recognizing "the priority of helping to fix Flint," which includes replacing every lead service line in the city.
"We all know that Flintstones are resilient," Weaver said. "We didn't deserve what happened here," but "we do deserve the resources to fix it."
Obama, who drank a glass of filtered water in front of the high school students, earlier drank filtered Flint water in front of reporters and urged Flint residents -- except for pregnant women and children younger than age 6 -- to move away from bottled water and trust their certified filters. It's necessary to get water moving through Flint's pipes again in order to heal them, he said.
"We need everybody in Flint to start helping us flush out that system," he said, through a campaign dubbed "Flush for Flint."
"The bottom line is, if you're not doing your part, then these outstanding folks around the table who want to help, can't do this," Obama said as he met with Snyder, Weaver, and a group of mostly federal officials.
The president said the need to trust filtered water does not mean that lead pipes don't need to be replaced. They do. But that could take two years, or even longer to get them all, Obama said.
He said every child in Flint who may have been exposed to lead-tainted water should be checked by a physician. But if a child gets attention, "your child will be fine."
Obama said children are resilient and it wasn't until the 1980s that the U.S. started banning lead in paint and elsewhere. "I am sure that somewhere when I was two years old I was taking a chip of paint, tasting it, and I got some lead," he said.
Lead can cause problems, the president said. But "as long as kids are getting good health care and folks are paying attention ... these kids will be fine and I don't want anybody to start thinking that all the kids in Flint are going to have problems for the rest of their life, because that's not true."
"Don't lose hope," he said to a brief standing ovation. Obama said the need to fix Flint's problems go beyond politics.
"My job here today is not to sort through all the ins-and-outs of how we got here today," he said. "There are times for politics ... This is not one of those times. This is a time when everybody locks arms and focuses on getting the job done."
For several Flint residents who sat in the audience, Obama's remarks were inspirational and well-timed.
Bethel United Methodist Church Rev. Faith Green Timmons said she had the opportunity to shake Obama's hand and speak with him directly about the crisis.
"It was very encouraging and comforting," she said. "Especially when he talked about our children. We've lived here in Flint for four years, so it was especially encouraging when he said many of us grew up exposed to lead, and just to raise your children the best you can; because I remember when I felt it was my fault and that I wish I hadn't believed that the water was OK as long as I did."
For Timmons' son, 8-year-old Gregory Timmons, meeting Obama is something he said he will never forget.
"It was amazing," he said. "I was waiting for a long time and finally he came up and I was so excited."
Flint resident Claudia Perkins-Milton said Obama's remarks served as a "lift" for her, as she continues to struggle with the crisis.
"It was invigorating for me because i was a little let down when he was at the auto show, but he didn't come here and he was only 65 miles south of here," Perkins-Milton said. "I love our president and I have faith in him and supported him in every election, but I felt he should have came here then. But he's here now and I'm happy. I think he gave the crowd hope."
Flint resident Arthur McGee said he enjoyed the president's speech, but he still feels the north end of Flint is being ignored by local, state and federal officials. McGee said the north end of the city is a food desert and lacks even more than clean water.
"No one is saying anything about restructuring on the north end of Flint," McGee said. "We have no grocery stores, no schools. I want to hear someone say that they're going to rebuild that part of the city."
Brandi Roper,a 16-year-old sophomore at Northwestern High School, said she thought the president's speech was "very inspirational." Roper's friend, 15-year-old Chloressa Wren, said it was an "honor to be in his presence."
Like many other Flint residents, Roper said she too has been affected by the crisis: Thinning hair and dry skin were just some of the physical symptoms she's experienced the past several months. But she said she's also experienced an emotional toll from the crisis and fears the water.
"It's really nice to know that the president, even with all his responsibilities, he really cares about this city," Roper said. "And that's great and it's just good to know that people care and that this crisis got national attention."
Tyrone Wooten, a member of AFSCME Local 1603, was one of seven individuals who participated in a roundtable discussion with Obama prior to his remarks at the high school. Wooten said he left the discussion feeling hopeful.
"He really gave us some insight on how he sees this crisis and what he's trying to do to fix the problem," Wooten said. "He listened and I was appreciative of it. He gave each of us direct eye contact and he was directly engaging. ...It was really a historical moment for me."
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