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Monday, 21 March 2016 05:00

Lessons from Flint

Written by  Vicki Thomas

Flint-ArticleAh, there is nothing better than an ice cold glass of water. Turning on the tap and seeing the clear, crisp, and clean water fill your glass is a feeling we take for granted. We take for granted that we have daily access to clean water for cooking, drinking, bathing, and washing.

This is why it’s very disturbing to dig into the Flint, Michigan water crisis. The more that comes to light about this water disaster, the worse it gets.

Here is an excellent summary from the Wall Street Journal of what happened in Flint:

“Flint’s drinking water became contaminated after the city began using the Flint River in April 2014 and failed to use a chemical to control corrosion of aging pipes, allowing lead to leach into drinking water.” (EPA Chief, Michigan Governor Asked to Resign Over Flint Water Crisis)

Now in March of 2016, we’re getting into the finger pointing and blame game. Likely not approaches that were considered in the business continuity plans for the EPA, the city of Flint, or the State of Michigan. In fact, there likely wasn’t a BIA done to consider what would happen with this change.

Today we’ve got very sick people. A broken water system. In-fighting. Blame. To sum it up - disaster and chaos. Other cities and states are watching this very closely, as there are many lessons to learn - what not to do and how not to respond in a time of crisis.

As a leader in the city of Flint or in the government, would you be prepared to respond to the following:

“People realized that children were getting lead poisoned and potentially contracting these water-borne diseases because the law was not being followed," said Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who uncovered that the water was creating a public health threat.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha first warned city officials in Flint to stop using the Flint River for water in September 2015. It wasn't until October 16, 2016, that the city officially switched back to using Detroit's water.” (Flint’s water crisis started with the flip of a switch)

What would you say to the point about children contracting lead poisoning? How about the delay in acting - how would you respond?

Scenarios and situations like these must be considered when you think about your business continuity plan. Is your organization at risk for a similar crisis? If so, how will you respond? Do you have a communications plan? What about an action plan if people do get ill as a result of an error from within your organization?

Interestingly, it was thanks to the dogged determination of a Flint resident that revealed how bad the water crisis really is in this community. LeeAnne Walters saw too many signs in her children that told her something was wrong with her water….

“In February, at Walters' urging, the city sent an employee to test the water coming from her taps. A few days later, she received a voice mail from the water department, warning her to keep her kids away from the water. "You know when somebody calls and you can just hear the panic in their voice? It was that," Walters recalled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there's no safe level of lead in drinking water. The maximum concentration allowed by law is 15 parts per billion. The Walters' tap water measured nearly 400 ppb.” (Meet The Mom Who Helped Expose Flint’s Toxic Water Nightmare)

The city’s response was to point blame at Walter’s and her plumbing system… Meanwhile her children were very ill…

“The city's initial response was to hook up a garden hose to her neighbor's house to provide water for her family—officials claimed that the problem probably had to do with the Walters' own plumbing. Just days after Walters got the results of her children's blood tests, Gov. Snyder's office assured residents that "Flint's water system is producing water that meets all state and federal standards." (Representatives from the city and the state's Department of Environmental Quality declined to comment for this story.)” (Meet The Mom Who Helped Expose Flint’s Toxic Water Nightmare)

Put yourself in the shoes of these Flint decision-makers… What would you have done and said? What do you do now?

What would you tell the people of Flint? How do you regain trust? What if it was your city, your decision, your staff, your boss, your children?

To read more about the Flint water crisis: