It’s those kinds of long-term infrastructural challenges that make the disaster relief effort in Flint unique, Red Cross spokesperson Todd James told Yahoo News at the bustling American Red Cross office in Flint Saturday afternoon.
Typically used for blood donations, the nondescript brick building was transformed last week into a volunteer reception center after President Obama declared the city’s contaminated water crisis a federal emergency and authorized FEMA to organize a disaster relief effort.
Since then, more than 100 official Red Cross volunteers from throughout the country have joined the operation in Flint, and many more families, student organizations, church groups, and others keep pouring in. On Saturday alone, James said, the reception center registered more than 200 non-Red Cross volunteers, deeming it “the single largest [Red Cross] operation in one day — in Michigan, at least.”
Those who aren’t sent out with the water supply teams are back at the center putting together more test kits for people to assess the quality of their water at home. Among them were 21-year-old Myosha Reed, a math student at Michigan’s Delta College, who drove 40 minutes from Saginaw to participate in her first relief effort as a newly minted Red Cross volunteer, and 13-year-old Brendan Johnson, who came with his mom.
Johnson, who lives outside the Flint city limits, said he feels “really lucky” that his family’s water wasn’t affected in the crisis, but many of the kids he goes to school with were not as fortunate.
“A lot of my friends come to school late, some of them have told me they take showers with bottled water,” he said. “I’ve invited some of my friends over to my house to take showers and stuff.”
During his 10 years as a Red Cross volunteer, James has helped bring disaster relief to a number of communities reeling from natural disasters, like tornado-toppled Joplin, Mo., in 2011, the parts of New York and New Jersey soaked by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Oso, Wash., which had a deadly mudslide in 2014.
But Flint is unique among the disaster responses he’s participated in.
“With a natural disaster, it’s fairly obvious what’s happened,” James said. What’s happening in Flint “is still a disaster, but you can’t see it.”
Unlike in the aftermath of a tornado or hurricane, he continued, “we’re not providing temporary shelter or food for people until they can return to their homes and things go back to normal.”
Once Flint has solved the infrastructure problems underlying this disaster, James said, there will hopefully be “a new normal.” But, he added, “I don’t think anybody knows” how long that will take.
In the meantime, he said, “we’ll be here as long as we need to be here.”
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