“My water, it’s brown.”
“There’s stuff at the bottom of my cup. I don’t know what this is.”
“I’m worried about my kids. I’m worried about their health.”
“I can’t drink this!!”
Their cries, I’ve heard before. Except now, it’s in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. As I sat in Ponchatoula’s City Hall meeting September, 12, I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘This is eerily similar to what I’ve seen.’
They were the stories of people I’ve interviewed countless times over the past two years.
You see, before staring my job here at WWL-TV in August 2016, I was a general assignment reporter in Flint, Michigan during the water crisis. My first day on the job in Flint came just four months after the city switched its water source.
Let me start by saying, the water crisis in Flint is very different from the situation taking place in Ponchatoula.
The water crisis in Flint began after switching its water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. Because State leaders did not adequately treat the water, lead issues began to arise in the pipes. Officials did not include corrosion control at the start of the switch. That neglect allowed the corrosive river water to seep lead from the pipes into the water, affecting thousands of homes, businesses and schools. The Flint water source became contaminated.
In Ponchatoula, they’re dealing with well water issues. After putting its main water well out of service for repairs, the city switched to another well. In an interview, Mayor Robert Zabbia informed us that the higher quantity of chlorine in their water system reacted with the manganese, creating the brown water many people are noticing.
The emotions, however, in both situations are the same. People in Ponchatoula are afraid. They told us the issue has been going on for months. Some say for years, but tell us the appearance of brown water has not been as frequent as what they are experiencing right now. The residents of Ponchatoula desperately want to know if their water is contaminated. Based on the statements from people who spoke at Monday’s city hall meeting, the men and women of Ponchatoula are beginning to lose patience and trust in their local government.
Working as a news reporter in Flint changed me. Not only did it change me professionally, but personally. I’ve seen my fair share of devastating news. But until that point, I never covered a story where a sequence of events would gradually lead to a man-made disaster no one could have fathomed.
A year before Flint’s water crisis made national headlines, the local TV and newspaper reporters spent countless months talking to people about their concerns.
After switching water sources, people complained about the odor. Their water smelled “odd,” is what they would say. Next was the color. The water, people said, appeared “dark brown and rusty.” The residents would show us pictures and provide us with samples of particles floating at the bottom of their sinks, bathtubs and glasses.
Next, many residents complained that they were breaking out into rashes on their faces, arms and neck. They were fearful it might be because of their water.
Every month, residents attended city hall meetings where they informed their leaders about their water issues.
Then, the protests began.
Marching, on many days in below freezing temperatures, citizens of Flint urged the city and the state to return their water to Detroit.
For over a year, their cries fell on deaf ears.
Leaders from the city and state would tell people their water was “safe.” That it met DEQ and EPA guidelines.
It was not until a Flint native contacted Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards and his research team, when things really began to unravel.
Edward’s team independently began studying the water and found elevated lead levels in several homes.
What made the situation even more troubling was the announcement made by Dr. Mona Hanna- Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center. Shortly after Edward’s discovery, Hanna-Attisha shocked residents, informing them that not only did they notice elevated levels in homes, but CHILDREN were directly affected.
The children in Flint, unknowingly, drank the contaminated water and now many of them were experiencing the effects of lead poisoning.
The interviews with officials suddenly changed from “The water is safe,” to “We will do everything in our power to make it safe again.”
The news shook everyone to the core, including our newsroom. The devastating part for us, as reporters, was slowly watching the crisis take a toll on the people living in the city.
Day after day, many residents, hundreds of them living below the poverty line or on fixed incomes, would have to go out and collect bottled water. Just imagine, living everyday, brushing your teeth, cooking and cleaning…with bottled water.
From a reporter’s perspective it was hard.
As a journalist, you learn early in your career that in order to get through your day, you have to detach yourself from a story on a personal level. At least to a certain extent.
You have to try and place your professional demeanor in the forefront until your day is done. Many of us did that, to the highest degree. However, to say that I left the city of Flint unaffected and without a vested interest in the people and what happened to them, would be a complete lie.
Telling the stories and being a voice for those affected by Flint’s water crisis became my passion. I would talk to residents, even on my days off about their problems. I could undoubtedly say the same for many of my former colleagues. It became personal for us, because it affected us too.
Now I feel myself doing the same for Ponchatoula. I want their voices to be heard. I want people to know, because of what I saw and what I have witnessed, I hear you.
It’s too early to tell what the outcome will be in Ponchatoula. But until things are resolved, we should not let the cries of the people fall on deaf ears. The people in Ponchatoula will not and should not, be ignored.
(These views are my own and do not reflect the views of WWL-TV)
(© 2016 WWL)