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The Lessons of Flint

The crisis in Flint, Michigan, which resulted in local residents ingesting dangerous levels of lead from their drinking water, is an emergency on all levels of government and a national tragedy.  “Getting clean water is literally what decides whether you live or die. We were poisoning our own people,” says Harry Rhulen, CEO of the crisis management firm Firestorm and a member of the ASIS Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council.

The crisis, which unfolded over the course of the last few years, also touches on many critical issues of emergency and crisis management—an illustrative case that provides several lessons learned, especially regarding where the response functions may have faltered. In separate interviews, Rhulen and two other crisis council members, Jerome Hauer and Hart Brown, recently discussed and analyzed the Flint emergency with Security Management. 

“Situations like this generally occur not as a result of a single decision or event, but as a result of a progressive series of decisions,” says Brown, who leads the organizational resilience practice for insurance brokerage HUB International. “In this case, ignored warning signals, inaccurate assessments, inattention to feedback from the residents, and the force of momentum with financial goals ultimately led to the health [crisis].”

The crisis started when the state of Michigan declared that Flint was in a fiscal emergency and assumed control of the city’s finances; in October 2013, Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to oversee city operations. 

As a result, Flint found itself in a potentially problematic situation, common in jurisdictions across the country—having an emergency manager who is a political appointee with insignificant emergency management training and experience. “We’ve seen this over and over again,” explains Hauer, who has worked in emergency management for several U.S. mayors and governors, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Hauer is now a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

Nonetheless, as a cost-cutting move, the state-controlled city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. The move was considered temporary until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready under a new regional water system.

According to Rhulen, the decision to switch water sources is similar to the decisions that managers of all stripes, including security managers, make on a regular basis. In considering those decisions, the cost savings are examined versus the potential for damage if the decision does not work out.  

But in Flint’s case, officials did not sufficiently evaluate the possible hazards—which in the case of a public water supply are immense. “The potential for damage is so huge,” Rhulen says. Such potential for damage should have required adequate testing before the switch was made, he adds.   

Rhulen advocates a “predict, plan, perform” model of crisis management, and says that Flint officials skipped the “predict” step—which requires that managers brainstorm different outcomes and potential problems—when they decided to switch water sources. “The predictive piece is so important,” Rhulen says. “They jumped right to ‘perform.’ No one thought through all of the ramifications.” 

Moreover, Michigan officials should have done extensive testing. “Before you switch to a different water source, you darn well better have tested it and be 100 percent comfortable that you will be getting a quality of water that will be as good or better,” Hauer says.

Immediately after the water source switch was made in Flint, residents complained about the water’s smell and taste, with some reporting health issues like hair loss and rashes. By the summer, the water tested positive for coliform bacteria, and residents were advised to boil their water. By January 2015, more water concerns were raised, potentially harmful levels of a disinfection byproduct. Nonetheless, in the spring, Flint officials declared that state testing found that the water met all state and federal standards.

Not responding to residents’ complaints, and instead insisting the water was safe, was a crucial management error, experts say. “That should have immediately triggered something. They should have said, ‘Something is going on here that we did not expect,’ ” Rhulen says. 

“They had an obligation to investigate, and nobody took it seriously, or nobody wanted to deal with it,” Hauer says. “You have to react to crisis aggressively no matter how small it may seem. There has to be an immediate reaction to ensure that you’re not seeing the tip of the iceberg and there’s something greater underneath.”

Indeed, only six months after Flint officials declared the water safe, doctors from Flint’s Hurley Medical Center reported that they found high levels of lead in the blood of some children. A few days later, Governor Rick Snyder pledged that the state would respond to the lead levels–the first acknowledgment by the state that lead was a problem. 

The extent of the problem was revealed shortly thereafter by a Virginia Tech research team, whose testing found that 10 percent of homes in Flint had water with 25 parts per billion (ppb) of lead or more, exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation of keeping lead levels below 15 ppb. Several samples exceeded 100 ppb, and one sample exceeded 1,000 ppb, the scientists found. 

That the findings by Virginia Tech and Hurley were much more negative than the state testing is telling, Hauer says. In situations when testing is needed, it’s often wise to bring in outside experts who will provide scientifically sound information and advice, and not just what officials want to hear. Academic scientists are known for providing unvarnished results, because they have a reputation to defend in the scientific community, he adds: “If they start fudging the books, they’ve got a real problem.”

In October 2015, more than a year after the switch, Michigan officials finally declared a public health emergency, with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Snyder both making emergency declarations. Responding to cries for federal assistance, President Barack Obama also issued a state of emergency in January of this year, making Flint an emergency on local, state, and national levels. 

On the national level, Washington’s response will be led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. On the state level, Snyder called on the National Guard to help deliver clean water to the city’s nearly 100,000 residents. Problems remain, despite the emergency declarations and ensuing actions, however; earlier this year, federal officials said state and city leaders were not doing enough to comply with an emergency order to resolve the lead situation. And Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette continues to lead a legal investigation into how the crisis unfolded, to see whether any laws were broken.

In general, Brown says that emergency management works best when a management team uses collaborative critical thinking and combined resources to develop an effective response. “When the situation is a natural disaster, a security event, or an incident related to public health, the goal is generally to bring a team together in order to identify integrated solutions, holistically,” he says. 

But since the Flint situation began as a fiscal crisis, leaders went in with the overriding need to “prioritize financial solutions,” Brown explains. This created a difficult environment in which the holistic emergency management process became secondary, leading to a compromised response with a focus on short-term savings.

“Emergency management should be more than just a financial problem solver,” Brown says.


Editor’s Note: “News and Trends” will feature coverage on ensuring a resilient U.S. water supply in an upcoming issue of Security Management.