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In enormous disasters, there is often one small detail — I almost called it a “grace note” — that clicks a huge, blurred tragedy into focus. That drives the horror home.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima, for instance. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to conceive of a nuclear firestorm that kills 100,000 people at a stroke.

But the shadows of victims vaporized in the blast, ghostly outlines left on sidewalks and against walls. Those you can see. The faint shadows somehow symbolize the entire unfathomable, humanity-annihilating power of the explosion.

Perhaps you’re not paying attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. And I can’t really blame you; Chicago is a city where children are gunned down in the street while they play, so it’s hard to get too worked up over some folks in Michigan failing a blood test. Besides, we have all the good clean fresh Lake Michigan water we need.

But there are aspects of the crisis that directly apply here. So a quick refresher.


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In April 2014, the bankrupt city of Flint switched from Lake Huron water to water from the Flint River as a temporary cost-saving measure. Suddenly, drinking water in Flint looked bad, smelled bad and tasted bad.

People complained, but those people were poor and black — Flint is 60 percent African-American — and society is used to ignoring their complaints and demands, as Chicago knows well.

This went on for nearly a year until officials from the various squabbling city, state and federal agencies realized that the levels of lead — which cause mental impairment and other problems — spiked in the blood of children. They told people to stop drinking the water in October.

Scary stuff. But none is the most haunting detail. The fact that has me shocked is this: exactly one year before residents of Flint were told to stop drinking their water, in October 2014, General Motors’ Engine Operations plant in Flint announced it was no longer using city water because it corroded car parts. The high levels of chlorine the city needed to use to overcome bacteria in the Flint River was damaging the metal.

You’d think this subtle warning would have caught the government’s attention. But it didn’t. The city kept claiming everything was fine, while the chlorine stripped the lead from the antique pipes and the dirty river water conveyed it to the brains of the children of Flint.

Now, when the skyrocketing costs are being tallied, in addition to the human toll, there is the need to repair infrastructure. The water was so bad it damaged the pipes.

One other detail stands out: Flint made the change as a cost-cutting move. How much money was Flint supposed to save? One million dollars. Maybe two.

One million dollars. Hard not to put a little Austin Powers emphasis on the word, to underscore its paltriness. Compare that to the $28 million that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, trying to wriggle out from the crisis, pledged last week to address the crisis to pay for water filters, bottled water and blood tests. Replacing Flint’s water infrastructure might cost $1 billion.

That is the lesson we in Illinois need to remember. Saving money is only good when it saves money. When I wrote about our own cost-cutting governor last week, some readers wrote in and said, “Heck, we’re broke.” Which is true. But falling behind on the mortgage doesn’t mean you start selling the roof for firewood.

Some short-term penny-shaving steps end up costing dollars in the long term. Every penny that Illinois cuts from preschool programs today adds a dime, if not a dollar, to the cost of the legal system tomorrow. Every dollar taken from preventive health care adds five to unpaid emergency room visits. We’re certainly a state with problems, but we need to solve them, not make them worse.

Michigan’s Gov. Snyder — a cost-cutting Republican, just like our own — trying to seem transparent, dumped 274 pages of government emails last week. They make for grim reading, as agencies bumble and finger point. Toward the end, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force blames the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for turning a blind eye to the problem, and a deaf ear to the cries of the parents of Flint, noting “their persistent tone of scorn and derision” in response to growing evidence that children were being poisoned.

Hmm, let’s review: false economy that creates real suffering, penny-pinching that ends up costing far more than the money supposedly saved, the hard reality batted away with official indifference and contempt. We don’t have to go to Michigan to find that.

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