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'It's just despair': Many Americans face coronavirus with no water to wash their hands

"It should not have taken a pandemic to get them to realize that maybe no water in people's houses is a public health issue," one advocate said.
Image: Contract worker Vaughn Harrington delivers a notice by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to inform residents how to restore water service in response to the coronavirus outbreak in Detroit
Vaughn Harrington delivers a notice by the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department on how to restore water service in response to the coronavirus outbreak on March 13. Rebecca Cook / Reuters

DETROIT — The cold winter months were grueling for Valaria Griffin.

The city of Detroit shut off her water late last fall because of unpaid bills and a broken plumbing valve that she couldn't afford to fix. Griffin, 55, was forced to rely on donated bottled water to drink, cook and bathe. She used space heaters to warm her home; without running water, the boiler didn't work.

Then the coronavirus hit. Governors and public health officials across the country ordered people to stay in their homes and — most importantly — to wash their hands.

Valaria Griffin
Valaria Griffin.Courtesy Valaria Griffin

But like millions of other people across the country who have their water shut off each year, Griffin can't easily do that — and now she worries that her life could be in danger.

"I'm so stressed out. It's just despair," she said. "I'm not able to keep my sanitation level up enough for this virus. I'm not able to keep clean."

It's not clear how many Americans are living without water service in their homes, but a survey conducted in 2016 by Food & Water Watch found that in the nation's largest cities, 5 percent of households on average had their water shut off that year. If those numbers apply across the country, that would translate to 15 million people.

For some, water shut-offs lasted just a matter of days, said Mary Grant, the Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch, a national environmental advocacy organization. For others, especially in cities like Detroit, where 1 in 3 residents live in poverty and where decades of financial strain have made it difficult for homeowners to maintain their pipes and keep up with bills, many residents have gone months or years without water.

Now, as the nation hunkers down in hope of stopping the spread of a deadly pandemic, Detroit is among cities taking steps to restore water to everyone.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced a water restart plan on March 9 to cover the cost of water restoration, limit residents’ payments to $25 a month and defer old water debts until the health crisis is over. The city, the state and the local plumbers' union are covering the cost of home repairs needed to restore water.

More than 400 other municipalities and states have suspended water shut-offs, Grant said, but just 44 localities have promised to restore water to people who've already lost it.

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And in many of those cities, advocates say, restorations are taking too long.

Griffin, for example, has been told her water won't be turned back on until April 2 — too long to wait in the middle of a crisis, she said. "I need to maintain my health status. I need to be germ free right now."

Grant is among advocates calling on state and local leaders to help speed the process.

"It's incredibly urgent for people to have water when they're being told to stay at home," Grant said. "They need to protect themselves from this really scary virus."

‘You wouldn't believe this is happening'

Water shut-offs across the country are tied to what Grant called a "water affordability crisis."

Plumbing infrastructure installed in many cities in the mid-20th century needs to be replaced. Facing a decrease in federal funding for water infrastructure, cities and towns have passed that cost on to ratepayers, leading water bills to skyrocket, outpacing inflation.

Detroit made national news in 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager, facing massive debts in the midst of the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy, shut off water to more than 20,000 Detroiters. The move prompted a rebuke from United Nations human rights officials.

The shut-offs put families in peril, said Monica Lewis-Patrick, president of We The People of Detroit, a human rights and water advocacy group that has helped Detroiters respond.

People gather to protest against the mass water shut-offs to Detroit citizens behind in their payments during a demonstration in downtown Detroit
Protesters demonstrate against mass water shut-offs in downtown Detroit on July 18, 2014.Rebecca Cook / Reuters file

"You're looking at mothers who are having to empty a case of water into a bathtub," Lewis-Patrick said. "They heat that water up, empty it into a bathtub. That means several trips from the kitchen to the bathroom. And if she's got three children, she's bathing the baby first, then the second child, then the oldest takes the bath in that same water."

Some families, she said, will use the same water three times, boiling a pot to cook pasta, then adding soap to wash dishes, then pouring the soapy water into the toilet to flush it.

"You wouldn't believe this is happening in a country that's touted as a leader of the free world," she said.

Lewis-Patrick's organization has been providing bottled water to people who need help, such as single mothers with multiple children and people with health challenges who aren't able to haul heavy bottles of water home from a store or a food bank.

But as panic buyers worried about COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have cleared bottled water out of stores across the country, her support efforts have been hobbled.

She estimates that her organization has been able to buy only about a quarter of the water it usually does. It's now having to make hard choices about who will get donated water and who will not.

"We've had to triage it," she said.

Long waits and jammed phone lines

For most of the 25 years that Griffin has owned a three-bedroom house on Detroit's west side, she had no issues paying her bills, she said. She worked at a prominent insurance company for 31 years, she said, until she was laid off in 2016.

The stress of the job loss, compounded by the grief of several family members' dying in a short period of time, made it hard for her to keep up with home maintenance.

A plumbing leak caused by extreme weather early last year quickly drove up the cost of household water, and, by the fall, she wasn't able to fix the plumbing or pay the $400 she said she owed the water department.

Valaria Griffin.
Valaria Griffin uses these donated bottles of water to cook, wash and drink. Courtesy Valaria Griffin

When she heard that she could get her water turned back on as part of the emergency response to the coronavirus, "I was so happy," she said.

She reached out to a nonprofit group called Hydrate Detroit, which hired a plumber who replaced Griffin's missing valve. But the plumber also found other issues with her pipes.

That means the restart program will have to send someone to fix her outstanding plumbing issues, which is partly why her water won't be restored until next week.

The Detroit Water & Sewerage Department reports that the water restart program had restored service to 700 homes as of Tuesday but that hundreds who called requesting restoration were still waiting.

Image: Contract worker Vaughn Harrington holds notices by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to inform residents how to restore water service in response to the coronavirus outbreak in Detroit
A notice by the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department informs residents how to restore water service amid the coronavirus outbreak. Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Lewis-Patrick said she's heard complaints from Detroit residents about jammed phone lines and long waits for restoration.

There are also likely thousands of Detroiters who aren't aware of the program or haven't called to request it. City records show that at least 2,800 Detroit households have no water, although some estimates suggest the number could be higher. The city has no way of knowing how many people live in homes without water, because many homes don't have active accounts with the water department.

Advocates say city crews should visit every home that's had its water shut off to make sure people are safe.

But Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the department, said turning water back on is complicated, as crews must make sure there's a meter in the house and that water isn't leaking.

The city has pulled crews off sewer and water maintenance to restore water as quickly as possible, Peckinpaugh said. "We take public health and safety very seriously. It's our priority."

‘It should not have taken a pandemic'

Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and former Detroit city health commissioner who ran for governor in 2018, said that the city may well be working as quickly as it can to restore water service but that it's facing a host of other challenges.

Recent reports show coronavirus infections spreading faster in Detroit than nearly anywhere in the country. Hundreds of city employees including police officers and firefighters are quarantined or sick.

"This is what happens when you institute these kinds of draconian policies and then try to walk them back in the middle of a crisis," he said. "You can't walk them back very well, because you're doing a lot of other things at the same time."

Detroit has said for years that it was legally bound to shut water off to homes with past-due bills because of a law that bars utilities from charging some customers more than others. The city has said that because some people paid their bills, it's not legally able to let people who aren't paid up slide.

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But advocates argue that if city and state officials can find ways to restore service in a crisis, they can do it whenever they choose to. They hope the city will be more creative when the coronavirus has run its course.

Detroiters who've had their water restored through the emergency program will need to enter payment plans if they want to keep their water after the crisis. By then, they'll face both the debts that led to their initial shut-offs and new fees for the water they're using now, which could cost far more than the $25 they're paying each month under the restoration program.

An analysis by American Public Media last year found that the average Detroiter pays more than $1,100 a year for water — far more than a decade earlier.

Lewis-Patrick says the rates are too high.

"They're not asking for a handout or charity," Lewis-Patrick said. "They're asking for a water affordability plan.”

Beulah Walker, the chief coordinator for Hydrate Detroit, which helped Griffin with her plumbing repairs, said she hopes better solutions can be found in cities across Michigan and the nation. She says she's gotten calls from people in three Detroit suburbs who had their water shut off this week, despite the virus threat, and had to tell them she couldn't help.

"Detroit is so overwhelming we're not equipped to deal with other cities," she said.

El-Sayed called on all cities to stop shutting off water, whether there's a crisis or not. People without water have been in danger of contracting infectious disease long before this year, he said.

"It should not have taken a pandemic to get them to realize that maybe no water in people's houses is a public health issue."