A reporter visits Flint a decade after the crisis began, and finds ample signs of lingering trauma

Published on
June 24, 2024

Ten years ago this year, the city of Flint, Michigan, began using water from the Flint River. The move was made as a cost-saving measure, taken under a state-appointed city manager, and would quickly take an enormous toll on human health.

The river water was high in chloride — due, in part, to excessive road salt runoff — and so corrosive that it ate away at old pipes, many made of lead, which began to circulate through Flint’s water system. By the time the problem became known to the public, some 100,000 people had been exposed to lead in their drinking water. None were more vulnerable to its toxic effects than the city’s thousands of children.

As a journalist, who for years reported on another poor, majority minority city reeling from its own massive water crisis, I watched events in Flint unfold with a familiar sense of dread, knowing too well that the consequences would reach far beyond the immediate damage from the disaster. So, it was with some apprehension that I agreed to cover the 10th anniversary of the Flint water crisis for Harvard Public Health magazine, whose editors sought insights on how to prevent a similar crisis for its public health-minded audience. The piece was published 10 years to the day from when the city began drawing water from the Flint River.

I visited the city in late January. The cold, wet weather made it tricky to get around and people weren’t in the mood to meet up. But after speaking to a handful of residents, I was certain of one thing: the water crisis had devastated their lives when it happened and, 10 years later, they were still coping with the terrible consequences.

They were managing a slew of health problems — depression, anxiety, and cognitive issues, likely tied to lead exposure. The emotional trauma from the disaster was still heavy. They were angry over the lack of accountability, as not one official responsible for the events leading to the water crisis had been convicted of a crime. Mostly, they were worried about the effects that the lead had on their children.

Lead can be particularly harmful to young children as their bodies and brains are growing so quickly, and because lead damages the central nervous system, affecting cognition, learning, and attention. Lead exposure can also cause slow growth, and affect hearing, speech, and behavior. The effects can be irreversible.

During my research, I used data from the Flint Registry, a project that tracks the health of 21,000 people exposed during the crisis. This data revealed that almost half of registry parents reported their kids had behavior problems following the water crisis, and more than a third of adults reported being diagnosed with depression. Data from the registry and the state Department of Health and Human Services were presented in two charts I created in Datawrapper.

Residents recalled the shock and disbelief they felt when finding out about the lead. Then came anxiety, sadness, and anger when they realized the full scope of their exposure. A year into the water crisis, one couple had a miscarriage — pregnant women exposed to lead face an increased risk of miscarriage and premature birth, according to the CDC. Another person struggled with their memory. One by one, their children were diagnosed with learning problems.

The crisis had shaped lives in other ways, too. One young person became an environmentalist, teaching kids about the nature surrounding the river; another decided to become an environmental attorney; yet another source devoted their life to being a good parent. I found this all very inspiring. But by the time I was finished reporting, I was mildly depressed. Their stories had a profound effect on me, and I was deeply concerned for their welfare. In retrospect, I should have been concerned for my own, as well.

By the publish date, I’d learned and relearned a few vital lessons as a journalist: Trauma can come in different forms, whether it’s from violence or loss of a loved one, and environmental disasters such as Flint’s carry their own brand of trauma. An extra dose of care is crucial when covering traumatized communities.

The retelling of events is enough to retraumatize people, triggering strong feelings that might manifest in unexpected ways. There may be subjects they aren’t ready to discuss or have trouble remembering due to emotional stress. On the other hand, as I found on this project, they may want to talk about their experience because no one has bothered to listen to them. In that case, they may say too much and not realize it could be used in the story.

So, whenever possible, be gentle when asking questions. Start off slow and be transparent about what to expect during the story-making process. Make it clear when comments are being used as quotes. And be aware of causing unintentional harm. If you sense that routine demands of the editorial process cause a source unnecessary pain or distress, they likely are. (Do you  need to ask for more time so you can talk to a source with more care? Are those extra questions totally necessary?) Be candid with your editor about your concerns.

It’s worth noting that communities of color experience many of the traumatic events we cover as journalists, and many of them have a history of discrimination that contributed, at least in part, to the story. So, take the time to learn some local history before turning in your piece.

Finally, if I could offer one piece of advice, it would be to get trained in trauma–informed reporting. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and the Poynter Institute are two organizations that offer such courses, which can also teach us how to take care of ourselves, something journalists often forget at great cost to our own emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing.

Thanks to climate change, we’ll be covering more and more environmental disasters in the coming years. Like the Flint water crisis, they’ll bear the social and economic impacts that follow such catastrophes. So, expect to uncover added layers of the story that may offer important context. Because people are never just victims. Their lives are rich and textured tapestries, full of nuance, and they deserve to have their stories told with sensitivity.