FLINT, Mich. — Sipping filtered city water to show it's again drinkable, President Barack Obama promised Wednesday to ride herd on leaders at all levels of government until every drop of water flowing into homes in Flint, Michigan, is safe to use.
He also promised that the aging pipes that contaminated the water with lead will be replaced, but cautioned that the project will take time. Obama said he wanted to use the crisis to make long-term improvements to the city, where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty.
"It's not going to happen overnight, but we have to get started," Obama told hundreds of people gathered in a high school gymnasium. Obama spoke after he was briefed on the federal response to the water contamination and had met privately with nine residents.
Obama said he understood why people are scared and angry and feel let down. He said what happened in Flint was a manmade disaster that didn't have to happen. But he said it did happen and everyone must now work together to fix it.
"I've got your back," Obama said. "I will not rest and I'm going to make sure that the leaders at every level of government don't rest until every drop of water that flows to your homes is safe to drink and safe to cook with and safe to bathe in."
He called providing safe drinking water a basic responsibility of government. And while he said he didn't want to go over every "screw-up that resulted in contaminated water," he blamed an overarching attitude that less government is better.
"It's an ideology that undervalues the common good," Obama said.
After coughing several times during his remarks, Obama asked for and drank from a glass of water. He also drank city water after getting a lengthy briefing on the crisis, which forced residents to spend months drinking, cooking and bathing with bottled water.
Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint in mid January and ordered federal aid to supplement the state and local response. By then, however, the crisis was in full bloom.
The city, in an effort to save money while under state management, began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014. Despite complaints from residents about the smell and taste and health problems, city leaders insisted the water was safe. However, doctors reported last September that the blood of Flint children contained high levels of lead.
The source of the city's water has been switched back to Detroit, but the lead problem still is not fully solved. Most people are drinking filtered or bottled water.