12 cases at a time, volunteers hand out bottled water in Benton Harbor

Michigan

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — In the parking lot of a Benton Harbor church Monday, volunteers unloaded and distributed two semi-truck trailers full of bottled water.

The 9,700 people in Benton Harbor have been advised not to drink from their taps because of lead contamination. The state is trucking in bottled water each Monday until the city water is safe. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has pledged to replace every lead water line in the city in 18 months.

The two trailers outside Abundant Life Church of God on Columbus Avenue contained more than 72,000 bottles. It took only four hours for all of it to be handed out.

Each family got a dozen cases of 24 bottles each. It’s hard to say whether that’s enough or too much.

“What the actual supply and demand is, it’s hard to get a number, so the state, federal, nobody can right now get a handle on how many each family should get,” said volunteer Marletta Seats, who was in charge of the operation.

Andrew Long waited in a line of cars that for several hours stretched for a couple of blocks. He will use that bottled water for everything but bathing.

“Brushing my teeth, drinking, cooking and washing meat,” he listed.

“The water is bad; it’s terrible. … We have to suffer for it,” a woman named Ora said.

“I don’t let her drink the water at all,” Angie Miller, another resident who came to get water, said of her 2-year-old daughter.

She wasn’t happy with the situation, but she also seemed resigned to it.

“It’s life, you know,” Miller said. “We have to deal with it. We have to make the best of things.”

Only a few of the 430 vehicles that showed up were turned away.

“We’ve run out of water,” Seats said, adding that told her “that the need is greater than the resources.”

It was not lost on her that the state’s last lead crisis happened in Flint, also a predominantly Black city.

Marletta Seats organized bottled water distribution at Abundant Life Church of God in Benton Harbor, where residents cannot drink their tap water because of bottled water contamination. (Oct. 18, 2021)

In Benton Harbor, the lead in the water has leached from old pipes. Seats, also a former Berrien County commissioner, blames all levels of government.

“We’re continuing to address the same issues; we’re reacting instead of responding,” she said. “If they’d have responded, whoever that may be, instead of reacting, we would not have this problem, but all we do is react, and government reacts, we don’t respond.”

For now, though, the people of Benton Harbor say they don’t care where help comes from — just that it does.

“Thank God that they’re out doing this for us,” Ora said. “There’s nothing else we can do but accept what they’re giving us.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of work. It’s going to take everybody coming together as a community,” said volunteer Karen Shelby, who wished her neighbors a blessed day as they came to get their water. “It happened. We can’t be mad. We just solve the problem. Solve the problem. Everybody work together, we can get it done. … Twelve cases at a time.”

Bottled water is unloaded from a semi-truck outside Abundant Life Church of God for distribution to residents of Benton Harbor, who cannot drink their tap water due to lead contamination. (Oct. 18, 2021)

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