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National Guard Called To Help Provide Safe Water In Flint, Mich.


Michigan National guardsmen are in Flint, Mich., today. They're there to pass out bottled water and filters to residents. That's because for more than a year, the city's tap water has been unsafe to drink. Decisions by government agencies allowed the city's water to become contaminated with lead, and many residents say they don't trust the governor to fix the problem. Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports.


STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: About a dozen children are sitting at a table in their school gymnasium.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We're going to make snowflakes.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We're going to make happy snowflakes.

CARMODY: It's family fun day at Freeman Elementary School in Flint, Mich. But it seems only in Flint would a family fun day include blood-lead testing for the children.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All right, sweetie - little poke.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Good job. What a big girl you are today - yay.

CARMODY: Two-year-old Kaitlyn is staring at the nurse drawing blood from her finger as her mother, Holly Versailles, holds her tight. This test might help determine if Kaitlyn is one of the many children here with high lead levels because of the city's drinking water. The water crisis is a big reason why Holly Versailles does not want to raise her daughter in Flint.

HOLLY VERSAILLES: And obviously it's not a good spot to be, especially if we're being, I would guess you would call it, poisoned by somebody who obviously didn't care.

CARMODY: Last week, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint because of the high lead levels. The problem started nearly two years ago when, in a bid to save money, the city's state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint's water from the Detroit water system. Instead, it began drawing from the Flint River. But the city failed to properly treat the corrosive river water which damaged Flint's old pipes, leading them to leach lead into the drinking water. Now it's so contaminated, health officials say it's not safe to drink without a special filter.

The response to the crisis has been slowed by state and local officials blaming each other. Eventually, the state and city started offering free bottled water and filters at fire stations and churches. But thousands of residents here continue to drink the tainted tap water, so now, six months after alarms were first raised, there's a new effort to reach those who continue to drink unfiltered water. With a fresh blanket of snow on the ground and wind chills in the single digits, a caravan of state police cruisers and U-Haul trucks rolled into a North Side neighborhood Tuesday, and volunteers quickly fanned out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Hi. We're with the state. We're giving water filters.

CARMODY: The volunteers handed out lead-testing kits, water filters and cases of bottled water. But the site of state police cars rolling into his neighborhood had an unintended effect on some of Ray Jamieson's neighbors.

RAY JAMIESON: They need to put a sign up, you know, so people won't think to run. My neighbor's running. They see the state boys, think something happened. They leave.

CARMODY: Sixty-seven-year-old Michael Hill did answer his door. He says health problems stopped him from getting a water filter before now. And while others complained about the slow government response, Hill does not.

MICHAEL HILL: Things just happen. They doing the best they can.


HILL: And I appreciate it.

CARMODY: But in this city of more than 30,000 households, the door-to-door campaign is only expected to reach about 700 homes a day. critics say the state's response - in particular, the governor's handling of the crisis - has been inadequate at best, criminal at worst. In Flint this week, Governor Snyder again apologized for mistakes by the state that led to Flint's current water crisis.


RICK SNYDER: Let's focus in on how we get safe drinking water in Flint both short-term and long-term.

CARMODY: Flint's mayor estimates the cost of fixing the city's water infrastructure at more than a billion dollars. There's no estimate on the cost of the long-term health effects on Flint residents who drank lead-tainted water for more than a year. For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody in Flint, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting. During his two and a half decades in broadcasting, Steve has won numerous awards, including accolades from the Associated Press and Radio and Television News Directors Association. Away from the broadcast booth, Steve is an avid reader and movie fanatic. Q&A