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Story highlights

In heated Democratic debate, presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders agree on Flint

The city's water was found to have high levels of lead after it began pumping water out of Flint River

New lawsuits will seek to establish government officials' culpability in the water crisis, law firm says

(CNN) —  

An once-quiet crisis in Flint is now drawing voluminous concern from around the nation as celebrities, politicians and presidential candidates steer attention to the toxic tap water in one of Michigan’s biggest and most beleaguered cities.

It’s hard to put anything about the issue in a nutshell, but a solid summary is as follows:

In charge of the city’s budget amid a financial emergency, the state decided to temporarily switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready. The river had a reputation for nastiness, and after the April 2014 switch, residents complained their water looked, smelled and tasted funny.

Virginia Tech researchers found the water was highly corrosive. A class-action lawsuit alleges the state Department of Environmental Quality didn’t treat the water for corrosion, in accordance with federal law, and because so many service lines to Flint are made of lead, the noxious element leached into the water of the city’s homes.

How tap water became toxic in Flint

The city switched back to the Lake Huron water supply in October, but the damage was already done to the lead pipes. The state is now handing out filters and bottled water with the National Guard.

Here’s a look at five recent developments:

State of emergency on three levels

Mayor Karen Weaver, who took office two months ago, and Gov. Rick Snyder, who has been at the state’s helm since 2011, have both declared states of emergency, with Snyder calling in the National Guard to help deliver clean water to the city’s nearly 100,000 residents.

Responding to Weaver’s and Snyder’s cry for federal assistance, which Snyder said would help with temporary housing and home repairs, President Barack Obama also issued a state of emergency Saturday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security will lead Washington’s response.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette is also taking action and said he will investigate how the crisis unfolded in an effort to determine if any laws were broken.

“The situation in Flint is a human tragedy in which families are struggling with even the most basic parts of daily life,” he said in a statement.

Voices of Flint: How residents are coping

Issue enters Democratic debate

Flint’s water garnered some attention when leading Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both made a point of mentioning it during Sunday’s debate.

Sanders called out Snyder, a Republican, demanding his resignation and asserting that “a man who acts that irresponsibly should not stay in power.”

Clinton said she sent a top campaign aid to meet with the mayor of Flint and said she had gone on a TV show to call for action.

“I think every single American should be outraged,” Clinton said. “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care.”

Snyder responded on Twitter that “political statements and finger pointing” were a distraction to those working to solve the crisis.

Numbers back up Clinton’s characterization of Flint, where 57% of residents are black and more than 41% of residents live beneath the poverty line (as compared to the state and national rates of 17% and 15%, respectively).

Celebrities stepping in

Joining the political heavies are familiar names out of Hollywood, some of the city’s favorite sons and daughters, namely filmmaker Michael Moore, actress Sandra Bernhard and singer-actress Cher.

Want to help Flint residents?

Cher and bottler Icelandic Glacial are joining forces to donate 181,440 bottles of water, slated for delivery to a local food bank Wednesday. Bernhard has been active on the talk-show circuit and social media, instructing her fans and followers on the best ways to get clean water to her hometown.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Moore – his film “Roger and Me” focused on the closing of a General Motors plant in Flint and he’s also known for “Bowling for Columbine” – had the most radical celebrity response: He started a petition calling for Snyder’s arrest, saying Michigan “effectively poisoned, not just some, but apparently ALL of the children in my hometown.”

A Snyder spokesman called the petition inflammatory at a time when Snyder’s “administration is working very closely with our partners in Flint and Genesee County to address health and safety issues.”

Read more: Did Michigan officials hide the truth about lead in Flint?

Mayor worries about the long term

State officials initially told residents everything was OK – then-Mayor Dayne Walling even made a point to drink the water on local TV – until Virginia Tech researchers in August performed tests and found the elevated lead levels. The scope of the problem came into even better focus when local pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha announced that records showed lead levels in toddlers had doubled, and in some cases tripled, since the switch from Lake Huron.

Lead poisoning is dangerous for anyone – the related woes include skin lesions, hair loss, vision loss, memory loss, depression and anxiety, according to a class-action lawsuit – but Weaver seems equally worried about the future. Research shows lead exposure can affect a developing child’s IQ, resulting in learning disabilities. Weaver worries that Flint will need an influx of funding in the future to deal with mental health issues and “an increase in the juvenile justice system.”

Legionnaires’ disease spikes

There could be greater demand for adoptive and foster parents “as a result of social services needed due to the detrimental effects of the high blood lead levels,” she has said.

Blame game

As Snyder pointed out, there is a lot of finger pointing surrounding the crisis, and he realizes a lot of those fingers are aimed in his direction. He apologized for the debacle earlier this month.

Everyone CNN interviewed for a recent story – including residents, city workers, Walling, Weaver and Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee – said they hold Snyder and the state Department of Environmental Quality responsible.

A 2011 study found that before water from the Flint River could be considered potable, it would need to be treated with an anti-corrosion agent, a measure that would have cost the state about $100 a day.

Experts say that water treatment would have prevented 90% of the problems with Flint’s water.

Budgets leave Detroit, Flint kids by wayside

Attorneys will meet Tuesday to discuss two new class-action lawsuits filed by Flint residents that target the governor, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the former Flint emergency managers who took control of the city’s purse strings after the financial emergency, among others, said Eric Hood, who is coordinating media for the plaintiffs.

The suits will detail government officials’ culpability and will provide a more detailed timeline than the previously filed federal lawsuit, Hood said.

CNN’s Jason Hanna, Z. Byron Wolf, Mariano Castillo, Greg Botelho, Linh Tran and Sara Ganim contributed to this report.