Obama visiting Flint for first time since water crisis began

Posted at 7:07 AM, May 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-04 14:02:55-04

FLINT, Mich. — President Barack Obama is set to meet with residents of Flint to hear how they're managing after lead from old pipes tainted their drinking water.

And Obama is bringing a message to Flint on Wednesday: a promise for change.

The White House says Obama wants to use the trip to assure residents that federal help will continue even after the media glare subsides.

The president will be greeted by Gov. Rick Snyder at the airport before attending briefings with Snyder, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and other federal officials to hear progress on relief efforts. Obama will also meet with residents and participate in a round-table before appearing later in the afternoon to address a crowd of roughly 1,000 people at Northwestern High School.

"The Governor is pleased to meet with the President to help explain the efforts underway by the state to help the people of Flint recover and the need for additional and ongoing federal support to address the initial failure at all levels of government," Ari Adler, Snyder's spokesperson, told FOX 17 by email on Tuesday.

Obama declared a state of emergency in mid-January and ordered federal aid to supplement the state and local response. At that point, the crisis was in full bloom. The Obama administration has repeatedly denied requests for a disaster declaration in the city.

The federal government has spent roughly $5 million in direct cash assistance to the city, which has paid for millions of bottles of water and thousands of filters, according to the White House. The U.S. Senate could also vote as early as next week on a $220 million packaged for lead pipe removal, inspired by Flint’s water crisis.

Comparably, state lawmakers have approved $67 million to fund crisis relief efforts. Additional aid funding is in the works, with millions more allocated in the upcoming fiscal year budget for the state.

Snyder has been critical of the federal government due to the Obama administration's refusal to answer requests for a disaster declaration in Flint.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, contends a disaster declaration is not appropriate, given the lead-contaminated water crisis was a man-made disaster, not a natural one, like a flood or hurricane.

An independent commission appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder determined the state was primarily responsible for the water contamination in Flint, and he issued an apology.

While the brunt of the blame has fallen on the state, the EPA has also faced blamed, particularly from Republicans, for not alerting the public to the crisis sooner. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told Congress that, while staff repeatedly urged the state to address the lack of corrosion controls, "we missed the opportunity late last summer to quickly get EPA's concerns on the public's radar screen." An inspector general is investigating the EPA's response.

But the White House appears ready to counter the GOP for failing to respond.

Last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the agency has “ramped up their monitoring of the water supply” and the administration has awarded grants to local health care providers to respond to the crisis.

“That certainly stands in stark contrast to some Republicans in Congress who advocate for the elimination of the EPA," he said. "How, exactly, is that going to improve the situation. There’s a lot to talk about in Flint. The president’s looking forward to taking advantage of this opportunity."

It took several months for the nation to focus its attention on the beaten-down city's plight, raising questions about how race and poverty influenced decisions that led to the tainted water and the beleaguered response once problems surfaced.

"The face that something like this happened in a community so economically disadvantaged is something that troubles the president," Earnest said.

The White House announced Obama's visit by posting a letter he wrote to 8-year-old Flint resident Mari Copeny, known locally as "Little Miss Flint," who had asked to meet the president.

"I want to make sure people like you and your family are receiving the help you need and deserve," Obama told her.

The White House has said Obama wouldn't use the trip to focus on accountability. He doesn't want to be perceived as weighing in on one side or the other during an active investigation. The White House has also cautioned not to expect a major new funding announcement. Rather, "Flint residents need to know that when the cameras are gone, the administration's support for the state and local response efforts will continue," Earnest said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.