HAMTRAMCK, MI —Nakiya Wakes was pregnant with twins in 2014 when the water coming out of her home’s tap in Flint turned brown and began to stink. Within months, she had lost both babies. Soon after, she again became pregnant with twins. Once again, she lost them in a miscarriage.
More recently, Wakes’ daughter miscarried, and the family fears she’s unable to have children. Meanwhile, her son started puberty at seven years old and developed dramatic cognitive and behavior problems that have steered his young life off course, she said.
The health problems all trace back to Flint’s poisoned water, Wakes told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, and she’s unsure if her family will ever recover.
“The damage is done. It’s irreversible,” she said.
The Wakes’ tragedy is emblematic of the spectacular suffering in Flint after GOP state officials decided to switch the city’s water source from Detroit to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. Lead from corroded pipes began to leach into the drinking water because it was not treated, endangering tens of thousands and officially killing 12 with Legionnaires disease, though a PBS Frontline investigation concluded the real death toll was much higher.
So far, justice has eluded the largely Black population of the city, whose residents sounded the alarm in vain about poisoned water for the better part of two years. But a new $600 million settlement officially announced Thursday could be a massive step towards righting horrific wrongs against Flint communities of color that long preceded the Trump presidency.
The settlement with the state of Michigan, which is still pending approval from a federal judge, includes a fund that will make payouts directly to residents. The fund’s legal structure is weighted to benefit young children disproportionately likely to suffer because lead causes developmental and cognitive damage. Corey Stern, co-counsel for residents in the negotiation with the state, estimated that kids under six years old at the time could receive payouts “in the mid six figures.”
Moreover, the payouts to children will be placed into an interest accruing account that they can access once they’re 18 years old. In other words, the sum will significantly grow over time.
Stern called the settlement “a really good deal for kids.”
“No deal is perfect and there are always going to be critics, but it’s really, really difficult to successfully litigate against a state agency … and this is about as good of a deal as we could have ever imagined,” he said. “Sometimes it really just is good and this is one of those times.”
The settlement also doesn’t bring an end to attendant lawsuits and legal fallout, as it only applies to civil action against state employees. Separate suits filed against the federal government, city government, and private companies involved in the crisis will continue, and Stern estimated that there could be over $1 billion in damages awarded to victims by the time it’s all finished.
The state settlement is “awesome” not only because of the financial component, but because the state is acknowledging that it poisoned the city, said Gina Luster, a Flint resident and activist with the advocacy group Flint Rising and the Water Warriors. The tainted water calcified some of her organs which eventually led to a hysterectomy, breast cancer scares, and a range of other health problems, she said, adding that it caused a “domino effect” in which she lost a good job, had to get on welfare, and began relying on family and friends for assistance.
“This is a huge step forward that shows some accountability for the wrongdoings that have been done to Flint’s residents,” Luster said, while applauding activists who kept pressure on the state. “When you keep applying enough pressure to a pipe, it’s bound to burst, and I think Flint residents know that.”
The settlement brings an end to the civil litigation against some of the saga’s most reviled villains, including former GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and Nick Lyon, the former head of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who allegedly said of the deceased victims, "they have to die of something.” It was not clear whether Snyder’s former emergency managers who made the call to switch the water will remain caught up in lawsuits against the city.
Though criminal charges against Lyon and seven other defendants were dropped last year, criminal investigations continue and new charges could be brought. Meanwhile, a previous $87 million settlement has been funding the replacement of the city’s lead pipes, a process that remains incomplete.
Wakes also expressed a degree of skepticism about the new settlement. Money has been flowing into Flint for years, she said, but none of it has gone to the victims. Instead it’s landed with nonprofits and other charitable entities that are often run by people who don’t live in the city.
And, regardless, there are issues and anguish that money can’t fix, Wakes said: “I’ve lost four babies that no amount of money can compensate me for.”
About a half percent of the new settlement is earmarked for programmatic relief, Stern said, but the rest will go to residents, or those who can prove that they regularly worked or went to school in Flint. About 80 percent of the residents’ portion will be collected by those who were under 18 at the time of the crisis, and, of that portion, about 65 percent will go to children under six years old. The remaining 20 percent of the residents’ portion will go to adults.
“This is really about the kids,” Stern said. “This deal would not have happened if the majority of money wasn't going to children.”
Each payout will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Those who suffered more will receive more money instead of an equal payout for all residents, Stern said. Flint had about 100,000 residents at the time of the switch, and it’s estimated that 7,500 children and about 18,000 adults now have legal representation. However, the fund is accessible to anyone, not just those who have lawyers.
Wakes said she’ll believe the settlement when residents receive the money, and, in the meantime, she and other activists don’t plan to rest.
“We’re still fighting. We’re still struggling,” she said. “People are forgetting about it because of Trump and everything else, but I'm not going to let them forget. We’re going to keep speaking up until we get justice for Flint.”