Relief Rides the Rails, Part I: Flint Water Crisis

A short piece on the successful initiative by Amtrak employees to bring relief to those impacted by the Flint, MI water crisis. 

I want you to take a moment and recollect with me. We’re 10 and 8 years old, respectively, at the dinner table. I’m struggling to finish my string-beans. You’re hoping that dad doesn’t see, because you know it’ll summon all manner of finger wagging about “children in Third World countries that would love to eat string-beans.”

Oh yeah? Well what about the time that you stayed in the shower too long? Do you remember dad shouting through the steam “stop wasting water, there’s children in Michigan that would love to take a hot shower right now.” Probably not. Because why in the world would that be a realistic comparison?

Unfortunately the Flint Water Crisis seems to be that once-per-decade disaster that strikes those who can least afford it. That seems pretty unacceptable for the wealthiest nation on the planet. But since grumbling and finger-pointing doesn’t solve the problem, the employees of Amtrak, America’s passenger railroad, decided to skip the talk and go straight to action. We’re all in this together.

 

The bountiful donation from Prince George County, MD, for the #AmtrakCares Flint water train

Liquid relief, ready to rock at Ivy City rail yard, Washington, DC.

THE PLAN

Thus the #AmtrakCares Flint Water Relief Train initiative was born. The concept was simple: we’d hold month-long water donation drives in cities where Amtrak has a sizable employee base, specifically in cities along the Boston to Washington Northeast Corridor and Chicago. We solicited donations of cases of bottled water, which we planned to load onto pallets and ship to Flint’s front door using regularly scheduled Amtrak trains.

We locked the dates in. A Monday, March 21, 2016 delivery to the Flint Amtrak station meant a cut-off date of 3/17 for east coast donations. We set the necessary equipment aside; figuring that one 85-foot baggage car would get the job done. We anticipated getting seven or eight pallets. Maybe nine if we spaced the load out a little bit. That would’ve been satisfactory.

Our base was solid we’ve probably got some 10,000 employees in the donation drive cities– and all the cities are in the US top ten, population-wise. But we’re largely city folks, taking public transit to work and not predisposed to bring a case of water on a crowded rush-hour train or bus, much less 20 or 30 cases. That said, we knew that every PowerPoint bullet about teamwork was programmed into the DNA of Amtrak employees.

I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised by the overwhelming show of support. Some cases came in from Omaha on the California Zephyr. A call from the building management at Chicago Union Station. “Are you the water guy?” The reports started filtering in on the weekly calls. “Yeah we’ve got six pallets in Wilmington.” Wait…six cases, or six pallets?

On top of that was the reaction when our donation drives became public knowledge. A case from the doormen of a colleague’s apartment building. Donations from a Chicago-based credit union. And then the bubble on the champagne…

Shortly before the deadline for the initiative, we received word that Prince George County, Maryland, wanted to ship twenty-plus pallets of donated water as well. One baggage car brimming with liquid relief became two! Collectively, maybe it was the fact that this is no ‘natural’ disaster. There’s nothing ‘**** happens’ about the Flint water crisis. This was an entirely avoidable catastrophe, and the American people have always united to fill a void left by our caretakers.

42 pallets! Including the gracious donation by PG County, we gathered 42 pallets of water to take to our neighbors in Flint.
The incredible payload of the #AmtrakCares Flint water train

The last call for Northeast Corridor cities (Boston-Washington) was mid-day on Friday, March 18, 2016. Train 65, the ‘night owl’, set out southbound from Boston that evening with the speical baggage car in tow. She made her regular stops and loaded any water that hadn’t been sent to Washington already. In DC on the afternoon of Sunday March 20, the baggage car was coupled to train 29, the Capitol Limited, and departed the nation’s capital at 1600 hours, bound for Chicago via an overnight trip through the Appalachians.

SPECIAL DELIVERY

My sleepless night (Sunday, March 20) ahead of delivery day wasn’t too far removed from kicking my feet beneath the sheets, too excited to sleep, wondering where in the world Santa Claus was at that very moment. Except that every once in a while I’d cheat by getting a train status update via the Amtrak app or ‘Julie‘.

On Monday at 3:30 PM I walked down from my Chicago Union Station office ahead of the 4:00 departure of the Chicago-East Lansing-Flint-Port Huron Blue Water. With me were the main co-conspirators in this initiative, Kyle Barnard and Antawan Copeland from our Wilmington, DE national operations center. These gentlemen were as instrumental as anyone in else in coordinating the donation drives and moving the water down the east coast. We considered ourselves three of the fathers of this effort and we needed to be there for the delivery.

And there it was, sleek and silver and still looking brand new, the AMTRAK AMERICA baggage car carrying the commitment of a quarter of our work force. I boarded the train and made my way around all manner of customers getting settled, no doubt wondering where the anxious man with the railroad badge was going. Sticking with the paternal metaphors, I was a proud papa staring in at the nursery when I got to the last door of the coach and gazed into the baggage car. filled to the sills with what the human body needs most.

We rolled out of Chicago Union Station on-time, always a good omen. Following the relevant procedural and safety announcements, the assistant conductor let me take the comm to let our passengers know about our special cargo. The conductor and I then walked towards the rear of the train again so she could see the water. We entered the rear coach (the one coupled to the water) to a standing ovation from a group of 60 Flint residents riding the train home from a weekend in Chicago. My skin turned electric, my throat locked up and a new definition of humility washed over me. With any luck, that’s the kind of moment that will flash across my mind right before the lights go out for good.
Amtrak Michigan Line stops

The agua and scenes along the way to Flint, via the COA Instagram channel.

I went to retrieve Messrs. Barnard and Copeland to make sure they got the credit they deserved too.  We sat down with the residents to get a basic idea of the depth of the issue. For this group, the anxiety had become psychological, to wit that the waiters in Chicago restaurants had to reassure these folks that they could drink the water put in front of them 250 miles from home. 
They told us that it takes somewhere between six and ten cases of water per day for a family of four to live an approximately normal life. They can ‘safely’ take cold showers of less than seven minutes. I asked them if they believe that seven minutes number as a truly ‘safe’ duration, and they assured me that they don’t believe anything anyone is telling them at the moment. It makes one wonder if that trust will ever be there again.
Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
My colleague and fellow leader Kyle Barnard is a master of perspective. “My city (Philadelphia) is an old city and we could easily be the next to be affected,” he says. Just because it happened over there or to someone else doesn’t mean it won’t come home to you or me someday. The notion that water, “which we all take for granted,” Kyle adds, “taking 45 minute showers and washing one article of clothing on the large load setting” could be a finite resource in the wealthiest nation on the planet is…I was going to type ‘mind-boggling’, but somehow that’s not accurate anymore. So let’s just say it’s infuriating.
Relief Rides the Rails, Part I

It appeared that fate was riding the train with us, as we ran on-time all the way. We left the timetable in the dust, arriving early in more than one city and having to wait until the proper time to leave. At 9:41 PM, with two pulls on the whistle the Blue Water pulled out of Durand, MI, the final station before Flint. I received the two text messages from our Road Foreman at the Flint station that let me finally, truly relax: “The trucks have arrived!” and “The forklifts are here!”

AT FLINT’S FRONT DOOR

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There’s never been so beautiful a sight for these eyes as the two tractor trailers and two manned forklifts in full ready mode as we eased into the Flint station. We arrived ten minutes early, and once on the ground in Flint, a 25-degree Michigan night was made much warmer by the pleasantries exchanged with the essential partners in this effort. We gave our thanks to the Red Cross for coordinating the entire logistical effort at Flint, in partnership with the Michigan Department of Corrections (tractor trailers) and Flint MTA (forklifts and manpower).

One of the Department of Corrections employees, a Flint native, gave it global perspective. He spoke to the way of the world now –non-stop negative news cycle; talking heads fomenting anger, etc. and how he’d really started to wonder if the bad had outperformed the good. The way that the nation has responded to her brothers and sisters in need in Southeast Michigan, however, has given him reason to believe that we want what’s best for the people we share a flag with. “That. That right there,” I told him, “is why we wanted to do this.”
Charlie Monte Verde, Kyle Barnard, and Antawan Copeland, the proud papas of the initiative. Photo courtesy of K. Barnard

Charlie Monte Verde, Kyle Barnard, & Antawan Copeland, proud papas of the initiative. Photo courtesy of K. Barnard

ON TO WEST VIRGINIA

For me, the Flint water train is at heart of why I wanted to work for Amtrak in the first place. More than just ‘alternative transportation,’ passenger rail is a communion of communities. This wasn’t corporate philanthropy, per se, but the spirit and culture of our workplace is what brought the best out of all of us. We market ourselves as “America’s Railroad” and if I/we can go the extra mile for our neighbors in need just by using trains that we operate every day, how could anyone refuse such an opportunity?

I can’t say it enough. We’re all in this together.

This wasn’t the first initiative to carry the #AmtrakCares banner, and it certainly will not be the last. Summer 2016 found us bound for West Virginia to deliver back-to-school and other relief supplies to those impacted by the devastating flooding. Follow Cult of Americana via WordPress, email, or our Facebook page to be the first one to read Relief Rides the Rails Part II.

 

Additional Coverage
Amtrak Delivers Water to the People of Flint (All Aboard: The Official Blog of Amtrak)

Make a Difference
Community Foundation of Greater Flint
American Red Cross Disaster Relief

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Charlie Monte Verde

Charlie Monte Verde

As COA founder, Charlie cultivates original American art forms. Charlie was raised in Upstate New York before moving to Chicago, and honed his writing skills in Mrs. Bonar’s AP English class before he was bumped down to the regular English class.
Charlie Monte Verde

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