The leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination had harsh words for Michigan officials and a humane message for residents of Flint nearly two years after the predominately poor, black town began complaining of unusable tap water.
"This is an emergency," said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, lingering over the fate of Flint's most vulnerable population, its 9,000 children under the age of 6. "Every day that goes by," she said, to rising cheers from the audience, "is another lost day in a child's life."
Since early January, the American factory town has been under a state of emergency, searching for short-term fixes and long-term answers to a man-made lead crisis. But despite national attention, including an MSNBC town hall hosted by Rachel Maddow, the heart of the problem has not been fixed.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of lead-corroded plumbing and service lines vein the city, unseen and actually safe if the water flowing through them is properly treated. But Flint's water was not, the state now acknowledges. As a result, when the city switched its water supply to the more corrosive Flint River, the pipes started to bleed metal, exposing an entire city to a neurotoxin capable of causing permanent brain damage.
But none of those lead pipes have been replaced yet.
"If Michigan won't do it, there have to be ways that we can move and then make them pay for it and hold them accountable," Clinton said, calling for not only new pipes but a promise of long-term care for Flint's children and other residents.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders agreed, renewing his call for Michigan Gov. Rick Synder to step down in the face of a once-in-a-generation catastrophe. "I don't go around asking for governors' resignations every day," Sanders said. "What we are talking about are children being poisoned. That's what we're talking about."
"The idea that there has not been a dramatic response is beyond comphrension," he continued, before raising what has become a persistent question for Snyder, who has apologized repeatedly for "mistakes" allegedly made by his underlings. "One wonders if this had been a white suburban community what kind of response there might have been."
Officials say they are investigating the source of the problem and the bearer of blame. The governor or members of his administration may even face criminal charges, according to the Michigan attorney general, the FBI and the Justice Department. Everyone says they driving toward a solution.
In the meantime, Flint residents are living like refugees in their own city — with bottled water for almost everything and no firm timetable for a return to normal.