Schar School Scholars Publish Book Examining Flint Water Crisis as Public Policy Failure

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Tonya Thornton: ‘Emergency and crisis management is a skillset that citizens must become familiar with…’

Originally published on February 3, 2011

In 2014, the city managers of Flint, Michigan, switched the water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River. The cost-saving change created one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in recent history as the foul-smelling, discolored, and off-tasting water supply to the 96,000 residents—whose years-long complaints of skin rashes, hair loss, and other ailments were ignored—was found to be contaminated with dangerous levels of lead and harboring Legionnaires’ disease.

Criminal prosecutions, including the recent indictment of former Governor Rick Snyder. Charges of systemic racism continue.

A new book of essays examining the crisis as a failure of municipal management is available now from Westphaila Press.

Managing Challenges for the Flint Water Crisis was commissioned by Schar School associate professor Bonnie Stabile, editor of the World Medical & Health Policy journal. The book was edited by Tonya E. Thornton, an assistant professor and coordinator of the Schar School’s top-ranked Emergency Management and Homeland Security program; Katherine M. Simon, a former graduate research assistant at the Schar School’s Centers on the Public Service; Jennifer F. Sklarew, an assistant professor of environmental science and policy at Mason’s College of Science; and Andrew D. Willliams, a local government practitioner with public works expertise.

“Mason has one of the more prominent emergency and crisis management programs in the country with national recognized scholars,” said Thornton. “Given that many of the scholars are connected with communities of practice, as well as situated in public policy and administration, it made sense to bring together a group of collaborators to address this important multidisciplinary topic.”

The disaster, she said, failed her “4C’s model. That is, there was a lack of communication that led to a disconnect in coordination and cooperation, which, in turn, did not produce meaningful collaboration. When this model is not adhered to, even in the simplest of terms, it will result in weakened social capital and fractured political trust.”

The lesson to learn from Flint, Thornton said, is that “disasters touch the lives of everyone, regardless of place and time. Emergency and crisis management is a skillset that citizens must become familiar with in an effort to put themselves—and their communities—in a position of resiliency.”

Schar School fact: Among U.S. policy schools, Schar School faculty are ranked No. 6 in the quantity of book and book chapter publications, No. 13 for citations in books and book chapters, and No. 20 for publications in upper-tier peer-reviewed journals (Scientometrics, 2020).