A Matter of Perspective

When the leaders of Flint, Michigan, celebrated a plan to save significant sums of money for their financially struggling city, they never imagined it would turn into a national scandal that would be described as a “man-made” disaster.

The idea was a simple one, and it had earned approval from a state-appointed emergency manager, as well as from financial and environmental officials. It would stop piping expensive drinking water from Lake Huron via the city of Detroit, and instead draw water from the Flint River.

Shortly after the water source was switched nearly two years ago, residents were complaining that the water had a strange odor, and some insisted that the water was brown.

Officials insisted that tests showed the water was perfectly safe. While the Flint River had once been severely polluted by Michigan’s manufacturing industry, the water in the river had considerably improved since then.

With the passage of time, experts began to realize that the problem was not the water in the river, but rather what was coming out of the intercity pipes.

It turns out that because the city’s population had become significantly smaller in the past two decades, the water was spending much more time idling in the pipes than it had in the past. The lake water piped from Detroit had been properly treated and the water managed to cope with the longer stay in the system. But the Flint River water was warmer, and it also contained more organic matter, creating conditions for dangerous bacteria like E. coli to grow and thrive. Residents living in parts of the city were ordered to boil the water before drinking. But the worst was yet to come.

The river water was corroding the iron pipes that brought the water into the city homes, and the residents were drinking water with unacceptably high levels of lead, a tasteless chemical that can cause permanent damage to the development of young children and lead to lower IQs.

While Detroit had used phosphates to prevent lead from leaching into the city’s water supply, the city of Flint did not do so. While the city claimed that it had an anti-corrosion program, that assertion simply was not true.

For a full year, city and state officials either denied or played down concerns raised by residents and outside experts, and it was not until last October that they finally switched back to using water from Detroit. In the meantime, lead poisoning in infants and small children had surged, and frightened local residents resorted to using bottled water or walked for long distances to get safe water.

As the finger pointing and blame game continues, it is now increasingly clear that federal, state and local authorities failed — miserably — to do their job, and the individuals responsible must be held accountable.

As we express our deepest sympathies to the people of Flint, we also note that this tragic saga reminds us how grateful those of us who do enjoy safe drinking water must be for this precious gift.

We have become so accustomed to being able to open up a tap without thinking twice about it, that we forget that nothing can be taken for granted. Each time we recite a brachah before taking a drink, let us concentrate for a moment on how thankful we must be that what we are drinking is not poisoning us.

During the massive snowstorm that enveloped much of the East Coast in heavy snow, most of us took for granted that despite the powerful winds and near-record snowfall we would not lose electricity or heat. Yet for 50,000 homes and businesses in the Carolinas, along with snow, the storm also caused a blackout.

Baruch Hashem, for most of the millions affected by this powerful storm, the lights stayed on and the radiators continued to provide warmth.

It all comes down to a matter of perspective.

Late Shabbos afternoon, an elderly man trekked in the high snow to get to a small Boro Park shul to daven Minchah.

When other mispallelim expressed their wonderment about the fact that he had made the effort to come, the Yid — a Holocaust survivor — revealed what had prompted him to brave the elements.

“I recalled how, in the camps, we wore these thin uniforms and were forced to work in the snow and the bitter cold. I thought to myself, if I managed then, I can go in such weather to daven Minchah…”