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John Fountain: Seeking answers in Flint

Demonstrators, outside the historic Fox Theater in Detroit before Thursday's GOP presidential debate, demand action on the Flint water crisis. Photo by Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images.

Poisoned. An American city. American tragedy. This should be the nightly lead story: The voices of those gasping for air in a sea of suffering at the hands of a man-made disaster.

City of Flint, Michigan. Population: 99,002. Community in crisis.

Contaminated water. Children exposed to toxins. Ingesting lead.

Hurt. Betrayal. Anger. Environmental racism. Social injustice. More questions than answers.

And the beat goes on: Poor people of color left to swim in a toxic soup created apparently by greed and by politics, and an unhealthy heap of marginalization and neglect. A perfect recipe for disaster.

OPINION

Some are calling it murder. Others genocide.

Whatever it is, it is a human story. A story I will travel with a group of journalism students to cover this weekend as part of the capstone undergraduate course I teach at Roosevelt University. We call this piece of our project: Faces of The Poisoned.

The Flint story begs for the voices of those most impacted to continue to be heard. We hope to chronicle some of them: those whose children bear skin rashes from the poison; those whose children or grandchildren have been developmentally stunted from ingesting lead. Those who have witnessed the advent of Legionnaires disease, or the symptoms of Alzheimer’s or other ailments since Flint’s water crisis, and who suspect that it must all have something to do with the water — poison water.

It is a grim portrait. An American Heartland city, where a once flourishing automotive industry symbolized American hope and promise, it is now enveloped in a yet-to-be resolved crisis, where there is one thing no one can guarantee from the tap: a clean cup of water. The crisis has summoned a humanitarian relief effort nationwide to deliver hundreds of thousands of cases of bottled water.

Not in a third-world country. Hometown, USA.

Flint is 57 percent black, and 42 percent of the population live in poverty.

In 2014, Flint switched its water supply from Detroit’s water utility while a new pipeline was being constructed. Flowing through leaching lead pipes corroded by the polluted Flint River, the poisoning ensued, according to officials.

Flint’s residents — the young and the elderly — drank lead-laden water. Bathed in it. Showered in it. Cooked with it. Washed dishes in it. And in fact, continue to pay the bill for it.

It has left children with rashes, with developmental disabilities and also left this Midwest city to languish. In January, President Barack Obama declared the crisis in Flint a federal emergency.

And yet, there is still a feeling across the city — based on our reporting so far — that not enough is being done. Stories that some people, like undocumented immigrants, can’t get water from some water distribution centers because they don’t have ID. Stories that some homebound elderly, or others who lack transportation, have trouble getting water.

Stories about the valiant and compassionate response of the faith community nationwide. About volunteerism and about local businesses struggling to stay afloat. Human stories.

All are stories we hope to capture in sight and sound — and also as written narratives — to be assembled at semester’s end as an online multimedia project.

Honestly, it was my students who came up with the idea to cover Flint and who created this semester’s project theme: “Environmental and Social Justice & Youth Activism.”

And it is my students who believe that — with a fresh set of eyes, by their journalistic search for truth and facts, and also with their belief in social justice and the need to humanize the story — they might make some small difference.

This is their lead story: Faces of The Poisoned.

Follow our journey on Twitter using: #RUinFlint

Email: author@johnwfountain.com