Flint water crisis: Obama says it qualifies as federal emergency

Flint, Mich., was granted federal funds to help with its water crisis, President Obama said Saturday.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters
The top of a water tower is seen at the Flint Water Plant in Flint. Michigan National Guard members were set to arrive in Flint as soon as Wednesday to join door-to-door efforts to distribute bottled water and other supplies to residents coping with the city's crisis over lead-contaminated drinking water.

Saturday 8 p.m. Update: President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration Saturday that clears the way for federal aid for Flint, Mich., which is undergoing a drinking water crisis, the Associated Press reports.

The White House also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will coordinate all disaster relief efforts to "alleviate the hardship and suffering" on residents. FEMA has been authorized to provide water, filters, cartridges and other items for 90 days. Flint can get up to $5 million in direct funding, though the state must match 25 percent and more money can come through an act of Congress.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the process of reviewing whether the Flint, Mich., water crisis qualifies to receive federal assistance.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), on Thursday, asked President Obama to declare a federal emergency in response to the crisis. Governor Snyder sent two requests to the president: one asking the president to allow immediate assistance for water, food, and generators and another asking the president to declare a major disaster, which could qualify the city for millions of federal dollars to provide long-term solutions to the aging infrastructure.

"We are utilizing all state resources to ensure Flint residents have access to clean and safe drinking water and today I am asking President Obama to provide additional resources as our recovery efforts continue," Snyder said in a statement. 

Snyder declared a state emergency on Tuesday and activated the National Guard  to assist in distributing water, filters, and other supplies. His administration has been criticized for taking too long to respond to the crisis.

The Flint water crisis started more than a year ago after the city switched water sources, from the Detroit system and to the Flint River, in an effort to save money. Since then, authorities have found that lead has been leaking into the water from corroded pipes, creating a potential health risk for children.

It's not clear whether the crisis will receive federal funds, but a spokesman from FEMA announced that the agency will review the request and advise the president.

The FEMA fact sheet stipulates that, “Should the state request federal disaster assistance, FEMA will review the request and make a recommendation to the president, who will make the final determination on any disaster aid to be provided to the state. The goal of disaster assistance is not to make individuals, businesses or government entities whole again, but to restore the community to a level that meets expected health and safety considerations."

The Detroit Free press reports that a review of federal emergency law and past declarations made under recommendations by FEMA found that major disaster declarations, by law, are limited to natural disasters.

According to FEMA, a major disaster “can be a result of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornados or major fires.”

The limitation to natural disasters “would seem to preclude the crisis in Flint, which could still qualify for a designation as an emergency," writes Todd Spangler for the Detroit Free Press. “But aid under that designation tends to be far less and far more limited, allowing, for instance, for debris removal and emergency measures, not the kind of permanent work Snyder is seeking to have done replacing water lines with lead in them.”

The agency has sent officials to provide logistical and technical support, a decision that was announced on Twitter by FEMA’s Director of Public Affairs, Rafael Lamaitre.

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