Q & A with Sr. Judy Blake, mitigating the water problems of Flint

St. Joseph Sr. Judy Blake. (Submitted photo)

For more than 15 years, St. Joseph Sr. Judy Blake has helped the people of Flint, Michigan, as co-founder of the St. Luke N.E.W. Life Center in 2000, where she is co-director. The center provides meals, a food pantry, literacy classes and job training, serving about 3,000 clients a month.

The assistance is desperately needed in a city devastated by the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the auto industry. The median income in Flint is $24,834 — half the state's median income and census figures show that 40 percent of the population is in poverty, more than double the state rate of 16 percent.

Blake knows what it's like to be poor. She grew up with a single-parent after her father abandoned the family, and she, her brother and mother lived with her grandmother and uncle. She knew the combination of relief and shame that comes with getting state assistance and help from charities.

She also knows what it is to be compassionate. Her grandmother strongly believed in giving to charities — Blake says her inheritance from her grandmother was "a compassionate heart" — and when her mother got a permanent, good-paying job, she supported the same charities Blake's grandmother did.

Now Blake is helping the center's clients cope with another disaster as the city of Flint's water crisis grows.

The city in April 2014 switched from purchasing treated water from Detroit, which draws its water from Lake Huron, to treating its own water, drawn from the Flint River, in an effort to save money. But the river water was corrosive, and stripped the deposits that coat the inside of aging water pipes, letting toxic lead leach from the pipes into the water.

There were also problems with bacteria in the water, it was later found to contain chemicals that can cause liver, kidney or central nervous problems and an increased risk of cancer, and officials now say the water could be linked to a spike in illness and deaths from Legionnaires Disease. The water was so corrosive that six months after the switch, General Motors announced it would not use the water at its engine plant because of concerns the water would damage metal parts, but state and local officials continued to insist the water was safe for another year.

Only on Oct. 1, 2015, did officials admit the water was toxic, and later that month Detroit water began flowing through Flint pipes again. But officials are still recommending people not drink or cook with the water, because they don't know what damage was done to the pipes and whether the water is safe again.

GSR: It seems like the water crisis in Flint has hit the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Blake: The water bills have been horrendous for a long time — our clients keep getting their water shut off because they can't afford the high water bill. And when they switched to getting water from the Flint River, they raised the rates even higher. We have a lot of senior citizens, they come in and they don't know what's going on. They have enough obstacles against them. And on top of it their water bills are so high their incomes can't meet it, for water they can't drink. Just to flush the toilets in this building, our water bill is almost $1,000 a month.

How has the center responded to this?

When they first said they were going to switch to Flint River water, we right away started ordering deliveries of water in those 5-gallon bottles [to use for cooking and drinking at the center], because they said the water could be hazardous for infants, seniors or people with compromised immune systems. They pull bodies and automobiles and everything out of the river. We're serving meals to seniors; we can't take a risk using that water.

We also get four pallets of bottled water a week [for free from the regional food bank] that we distribute to our clients, but a lot of them don't understand why this came to be or why this is happening. They come in and say, 'Sister, what's this about the water?' But then 60 percent of our adults can't read above a second-grade level. And no, four pallets [up to 7,000 bottles, depending on the size sent that week] is not enough. We're missing all kinds of people in the neighborhood. We wish we could put out a notice to everyone that we have water for them, but when it comes in it's pretty much gone. There's free water at the fire station, but that's two or three miles away and they can't afford bus fare.

The water we get is free from the food bank, but it's not enough. That's why we can always use direct donations, too.

There is a lot of help coming in now, but also a lot of blame being spread around, including calls for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign or even be arrested. Where do you fall in all this?

I think it's a wonderful thing that people are willing to help out. The water we're handing out today came from Cher. But that's not the answer. The answer is to fix the pipes, but that's going to cost millions and millions.

They're trying to blame the governor for this, but there's all these people in between him and the locals that were involved. We've had four state-appointed managers. The state Department of Environmental Quality was involved. Yes, we're mad, but what we need to do is fix the pipes.

Are you seeing the health effects in your clients from the water?

Oh yes. At this time of year, most of the children are in school so we don't see them now, but their parents are saying, 'He's breaking out in a rash, I'm afraid to bathe him in the water because of what it's doing to him.' Children are very sensitive to this.

We have a lot of elderly clients, and they've been drinking it because they don't have any other source of water. They told us if you have any diseases or anything, you should talk to your doctor about drinking the water, but they don't have a choice.

So what are you going to do going forward?

We're keeping on. We're not going to change or go away. We need to help people find jobs, and build the economy back up. We need to build the schools and make people self-sufficient.

We can only work with one person at a time, but that's how we're going to change things.

We're worried that once the attention dies down, the donations will dry up and we'll be on our own again.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]