Who's in charge of the response to the Flint water crisis?

Feb 25, 2016

The drinking water crisis in Flint unearthed major problems with how the government in Michigan serves the public.

We're coming up on the two-year anniversary of the water source switch in Flint. That's two years since the people in Flint first started complaining about the condition of their drinking water.

And today, the people in Flint still don't have a clear answer on when they can expect their water supply to be safe.

Chastity Pratt of Bridge Magazine highlights just what was lost in Flint:

To be a resident in Flint these days is to thrum with a mistrust for government.

The trust was broken. Who can rebuild it?

The gobs of internal e-mails show the people in charge ignored warning sign after warning sign. And when they were confronted with concrete evidence, their first reaction was to deny and discredit.

(It's all right here, if you want to read more.)

That's the kind of government the people of Michigan had.

So can this same government lead us out of this crisis?

On January 19, the state's leader, Governor Rick Snyder, promised the public that his government would do better in his State of the State address.

But on January 21, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicated it didn't think the state was up to the task.

In an "emergency administrative order" the EPA required the state to share "necessary information" with the public, and it said it would begin its own sampling and analysis of the water.

"...these failures continue."

From the order:

EPA has determined the City of Flint’s and the State of Michigan’s responses to the drinking water crisis in Flint have been inadequate to protect public health and that these failures continue.

From the outside, this order looked like the federal government was saddling up, moving its resources to Flint, and taking things over from a state government that wasn't working.

So the question became, "OK, so who is in charge now?"

The lead federal agency in this response is not the EPA.

It's not FEMA.

It's the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And the person in charge of the federal government's response is this person at the podium:

Dr. Nicole Lurie makes an announcement about lead testing results in Flint. She is leading the federal response in Flint for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This photo was from Dr. Nicole Lurie's first public appearance in Flint on January 29 – a hastily convened press conference on a Friday night. Lurie is DHHS's assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

From the outside, it looked like this was the person in charge. The person who would get to the bottom of what is going on with Flint's water pipes.

Not quite. Her agency is helping to find some answers, yes. But the person leading the overall effort? No. 

When you ask the federal government if they're in charge of things in Flint, they will tell you that they are in Flint "at the request of the state."

When you ask the federal government if it's in charge of things in Flint, officials will tell you that they are in Flint "at the request of the state."

Legally, the state is still charge of enforcing the nation's environmental laws.

That authority can't be taken away unless the federal government removes that authority. It would have to show that the state is not up to the task of enforcing these laws.

It's something it's looking into, but until then, the state government is in charge, and the federal government is here "at the state's request."

How the feds are working in Flint

Don Boyce is director of the office of emergency management for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He's one of Dr. Lurie's point people in Flint.

"It's a coordinated federal response to those instances and situations that the state is requesting our assistance on," Boyce said.

I asked him how the federal government coordinates with the state, county, and city.

"We work in a full and coordinated effort on a daily basis to meet and attend all of the meetings that we're invited to, or that we're aware of ... so that we're seamlessly integrating into the three seats of government in a way that supports their efforts," Boyce said.

The organizational chart for the federal response in Flint. It hangs in the office where federal officials are housed in Flint. Dr. Lurie from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is in charge of the federal response.
Credit Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Boyce says there's a federal "Unified Coordination Group" in Flint that is broken into five task forces (now four, since the "Human Services" task force wrapped up its work on Feb. 13).

Boyce says the team meets each morning to discuss the day's tasks, and he says those tasks are reviewed every 24 to 48 hours.

But again, the federal government says it's here at the request of the state, so if we're looking for that leader who is charge of the full effort, you won't find it at the federal level.

The bottom line: The state's chief executive is in charge

So we're back to a state-led response to the Flint water crisis. And the person at the top in the state is Gov. Snyder.

If you think of past crises in this country, there are times when leaders step up to the challenge.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bucked the advice of his own party and worked closely with President Obama in bringing aid dollars to those impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talk with local residents at the Brigantine Beach Community Center in Brigantine, N.J. on Oct. 31, 2012.
Credit Pete Souza / White House

Rudy Giuliani helped New York City heal after 9-11.

And Robert Kennedy, despite warnings from the city's police chief not to do it, went into a poor neighborhood in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination and delivered the news.

The situation Gov. Snyder faces is quite different, of course.

This was not a single, cataclysmic event, but a series of poor decisions, smaller events, and departmental cover-ups that led to the drinking water crisis in Flint.  

But the goal for him is similar to these other crises. He has to work hard to restore trust in the community.

Wayne Thomas is with the international consulting firm IEM. The company works with federal, state, and local governments on emergency management practices.

Thomas says the fundamental issue that the government faces in Flint is a lack of trust.

"That’s the foundation of this," says Thomas. "If we don't have trust in what’s happening, there's not going to be any confidence that the right solution is going to be implemented here ... building that trust equation with the community and keeping that going on a continual basis is crucial for this to be a positive outcome at the end of this very bad situation."

Gov. Snyder has had a tougher time connecting with people in Flint. He's apologized. He's shown emotion on television.

At a recent stop at a food bank in Flint, the governor was asked why he wasn't meeting with the people in the city more.

Listen to the exchange:

Snyder has another challenge in this difficult situation.

For many, he's seen as the person responsible for causing the drinking water crisis in Flint. The city was under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager when the crisis began to unfold.

I asked Wayne Thomas how a leader in this situation can overcome something like this.

"People want to know their leader understands their pain and shows concern, but mostly importantly can get things done."

"People want to know their leader understands their pain and shows concern, but most importantly can get things done," Thomas wrote in an e-mail in response. "I would visit the schools, daycares, grocery stores etc. All those places where regular people go and start talking to them, and listen.  Then tell them what you are going to do and do it. When you are in charge, be in charge."

Nolan Finley, an opinion columnist with The Detroit News, recently wrote about the governor's style and how it hasn't helped him in this crisis:

He’s the rare elected official who is not always looking for the camera. So when he finally learned the water was poisoning Flint’s children with lead, his nature took him back to the numbers, instead of to the microphone.

He tried to apply his operating philosophy of relentless positive action to a situation that called for an angry public face and some old-fashioned, behind-the-scenes butt kicking.

Gov. Snyder, the self-proclaimed "tough nerd" is decidedly not a "butt-kicker."

He has worked with the Legislature to get resources to the city, but with so many agencies working in Flint, Wayne Thomas says it's crucial for a strong leader to make sure there's solid coordination between all the parties involved. That way, the resources that are brought to the city are used in the best way.

“That’s really one of the key roles of emergency management is ‘how do we bring together the various assets and capabilities that are found in different parts of government, and private sector, to make them work together to meet the needs of a crisis or a disaster,” says Thomas.

A strong voice from the city

One person who has been pushing hard for more progress in the city is Flint's new mayor. Mayor Karen Weaver campaigned on the failures of her predecessors in Flint, and she promised to aggressively deal with the problem.

Of all the leaders who have emerged during this crisis, Weaver has pushed the hardest. And she has spoken with the moral authority of a city that has been wronged.

Listen to her response to this question when a reporter in Washington D.C. asked, "To what extent do you think resources hadn't been going to this community precisely because it's high-poverty and majority black?"

Shortly after she was elected, Weaver declared a state of emergency.

She called on the governor to give her more authority to run the city (the city is still under the state's watch through the Receivership Transition Advisory Board).

And she pushed for the total replacement of all the lead pipes in the city, saying the people in Flint simply won't trust anything less.

No shortage of cooks in the kitchen

There are a lot of government people buzzing around in Flint.

The federal government has its "Unified Coordination Group." The state has its "Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee." And the city has its own "Fast Start" program.

... with all of these resources focused on Flint, we don't get a sense that this is one unified effort.

And, still, with all of these resources focused on Flint, we don't get a sense that there is a single, unified effort.

We still hear state officials blaming the EPA for what happened. We hear EPA officials say the state is still not doing enough in the city. And we hear city officials clamor for more money to get the lead pipes out of the ground.

One of the lead federal officials in Flint, Don Boyce, says the goal is to leave the city with a plan in place.

"Our goal, ultimately is to provide a structured approach and help create a plan, and then as we extricate, because we can't stay on the ground forever, then the state and the county and the city have a plan that has been comprehensively designed," says Boyce.

Having someone drive the coming plan to a successful resolution will take strong leadership. And nothing is more important for the people living in Flint who are asking when – or if – their water will ever be safe.