Elon Musk says he can fix Flint’s water. Her...

Elon Musk says he can fix Flint’s water. Here’s what he should do instead.

Dear Mr. Elon Musk: We get it — if you’re attempting to send mini-submarines into underwater caves and launch yourself into space, fixing America’s crumbling urban infrastructure probably sounds like the kind of project you could tackle on a lazy Sunday afternoon. With your full portfolio of projects and … prolific Twitter use, it might be entirely normal for you to start a project as complex as restoring clean water to Flint, seemingly just at the request of a few followers.

Well, not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but we’ve got a friendly suggestion!

Instead of personally solving Flint’s water crisis — by telling people that the water is fine now (not quite), asking residents to tweet or email their tap water test results (probably not the most effective system) and planning one weekend to install filters and fully eradicate resident worries (free filters have already been available)  — maybe don’t reinvent the water system?

Flint has well-deserved trust issues with strangers who show up on their figurative or literal doorsteps offering quick fixes. Instead, you could consider donating to one of the local organizations already offering services to residents. Or maybe the fund that supports long-term programs for the kids who have been irreparably harmed by the crisis? Not as flashy, but just a thought.

More nuanced responses, and better suggestions for how you could actually put your money to good use, came from some of the Flint residents who tweeted back in good faith. One person noted that a major obstacle for many homeowners is exorbitant bills for the water they don’t feel safe drinking.

Another Flint tweeter, @_kokomojo, broke down why there’s no quick filter fix: “Many, if not most of us have tap filters, some of us have shower filters, fewer have whole house filters. They’re not replacing the infrastructure, or the plumbing in homes damaged by the lack of corrosion control after the switch to Flint River water.”

People need their individual plumbing replaced, and no one is stepping in to buy her or other residents hot water heaters, @_kokomojo said.  And in a follow-up tweet: “I’m not trying to sound ungrateful, @elonmusk, but even if you put in the latest & greatest whole-house filter technology, what happens in 6 mos. when families can’t afford to replace the cartridge? Or sooner, if ppb are high? It’s just a Band-Aid. We need new pipes.”

The state of Michigan is actually working on that, and has allotted more than $87 million to replace corroded lead pipes responsible for bringing water to 18,000 homes in Flint. They appear to be on track to finish sometime next year. The massive undertaking will actually put Flint ahead of many other older cities still trying to figure out whether to replace lead pipes and how they’ll afford it, though that’s little comfort to locals. In the meantime, people like Mayor Karen Weaver — who reached out to you herself — have shared concerns that construction disturbances could temporarily release more contaminants into the system and tap water shouldn’t be considered safe until pipe replacement is complete.

If you scroll through all the tweets coming your way, setting aside all your cheerleaders and trolls, it’s pretty obvious that people who live in the city are cautious but ready to take you at your word, and willing to share the expertise and lived experience that would steer you toward the best way to help Flint. Even the wealthiest geniuses don’t know the answer to every problem. (And heck, you name-checked the wrong regulatory agency. Not a major mistake, but people in Flint have been all too familiar with EPA, MDEQ, ppm, all those the abbreviations, for years now.)

In fact, even one of your youngest followers is dropping knowledge bombs. Shoutout to Twitter legend Mari Copeny aka Little Miss Flint, who may have helped sparked the idea to address the water crisis.

When you asked your followers to share their dream features for a Tesla pickup truck last month, all she said was, “Water for Flint and bikes for #FlintKids please.”

We’re glad you reportedly made good on the bikes. Clean water won’t be so simple.

But hopefully, with a little willingness to follow locals’ guidance, you’ll be able to make a difference in a lasting way.


Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl