By Maya Rhodan
Amariyanna Copeny is only 8-years-old but she already knows the power of the pen. When she and her family were on their way to Washington to attend Congressional hearings on the Flint water crisis, she wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to meet with the visiting residents.
“My mom said chances are you will be too busy with more important things, but there is a lot of people coming on these buses and even just a meeting from you or your wife would really lift people’s spirits,” wrote Amariyanna, who goes by Mari.
Her mom was right—the president was not able to meet with her when she was in town. But on Wednesday, Mari will have a chance to meet with the president when he visits Flint, Mich. About five months after the news that lead-contaminated water had been flowing into the homes of residents drew national attention to the mostly poor and minority city of 99,000, President Obama will be briefed on the federal response, meet with community members and give a speech to residents.
“As the president noted in his letter last week to Mari Copeny,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday, “Flint residents need to know that when the cameras are gone, the Administration’s support for the state and local response efforts will continue.”
Mari says she’s “excited” for the president’s visit, but her mom Lulu Brezzell, 26, hopes the president’s conversations with residents open his eyes to the harsh realities of life there. “Sometimes it feels like we’re forgotten,” Brezzell told TIME in a phone interview. “I hope he sees that the people here are really suffering. … I hope President Obama sees how bad it really it is.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has said the water is safe to drink when filtered, but Brezzell says she’s not ready to switch from bottled water. “I will not trust the water until the all of the pipes in the city are replaced,” she says.
For the mom of three, just getting her kids bathed is a struggle. She uses 23 gallons of water, water that needs to be dumped out of bottles and warmed up to a comfortable temperature, to fill the tub halfway for bath time. The water that spews from her faucet, she says, smells like bleach. If she doesn’t treat it, her babies’ break out in rashes. Before we got on the phone, she said, her son filled a cup up with water from the bathroom sink. Everyone in the house panicked. They avoid bathing in the water, they don’t cook with it, and if there’s one thing they definitely avoid doing it’s drinking the water that comes from their faucets unfiltered.
“People ask, ‘Well, isn’t it hard?’ but it’s kind of just what we’ve gotten used to,” Brezzell says. “It’s a new way of life for us.”
In April 2014, the Flint city government changed water sources—from Lake Huron to the Flint River—in order to cut costs in the cash-strapped city. Shortly after, residents began complaining about the smell, color and taste of the water. Later many reported suffering from rashes and physical ailments. But it wasn’t until last fall that the state government admitted there was an issue—after researchers found high levels of lead contamination among city children under 5.
Since, the city and state have been slowly working to right those wrongs. Several officials have either resigned or been fired. Just last week, three officials were indicted on criminal charges for their involvement in the handling of the crisis. Two state officials and a city utilities administrator were charged with violating clean water law, conspiracy, and tampering with test results, among other things.