Jackson’s water crisis forces residents to find alternatives

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Water pressure at James Brown’s in Jackson was so low the faucets barely dripped. He didn’t know how to cook. He couldn’t swim. But he still had to work.

The 73-year-old tree cutter hauled bags of ice in his truck to a gas station as he drove to work on Wednesday after several days without water.

“What can I do? I’m just a pawn in a game of chess,” he said on one of the multiple trips to the store. , it’s just trying to live.”

People lined up for water for drinking, bathing, cooking and flushing the toilet Wednesday in the Mississippi capital. The city’s water system partially failed earlier this week after flooding from the Pearl River exacerbated long-standing problems at one of two water treatment plants.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday evening approved an emergency declaration for the state of Mississippi. On Wednesday, he called Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba to discuss response efforts, including support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers of the army. The mayor also said he had a separate phone conversation with Vice President Kamala Harris.

Beyond addressing the immediate crisis, Biden said he wants to provide federal support for the long-term effort to rebuild Jackson’s aging water infrastructure, which has been unreliable for years.

Lumumba said Jackson’s water system is troubled by understaffing and “decades of deferred maintenance.” He said the influx of water from the torrential rains changed the chemical composition needed for treatment, which slowed down the process of draining water to customers.

A city news release said the main water treatment plant had “issues with water chemistry” on Wednesday, which led to lower water production. This caused the water tanks to run out and the water pressure to drop sharply.

Even before the service was disrupted, Jackson’s 150,000 residents had been boiling their drinking water for a month because authorities said it could cause digestive problems.

Brown said Wednesday he stopped at the grocery store to buy four cases of water before getting the ice cream. A lifelong resident of Jackson, he said people have lived there without access to consistent water for years — even under pressure, residents often have to boil it for drinking and cooking.

A cold snap in 2021 left tens of thousands of people without running water after pipes froze. Similar problems recurred earlier this year, on a smaller scale.

“It will be fine one day,” Brown said. “When, I have no idea.”

Like many towns, Jackson faces water system issues that it cannot afford to address. Its tax base has eroded in recent decades as the population has shrunk – the result of the predominantly white flight to the suburbs that began after the integration of public schools in 1970. The city’s population is now over 80% black, with about 25% of its inhabitants living in poverty.

Lumumba said Tuesday that repairing Jackson’s water system could cost “most likely billions of dollars.” Mississippi is getting $75 million to fix water problems as part of a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Jackson is receiving about $31 million through EPA revolving loan funds for treatment and distribution system improvements.

At a press conference Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the EPA was deploying personnel to Jackson for an emergency assessment of treatment plants and to streamline delivery. repair equipment. FEMA has staff at the state emergency operations center and is coordinating with the state emergency management team to identify needs, she said.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency for Jackson’s water system on Tuesday. The state will try to help solve the problems by hiring contractors to work at the OB Curtis water treatment plant – the facility causing Jackson’s water problems. The plant was operating at reduced capacity with backup pumps after the main pumps failed “some time ago,” Reeves said.

In a video posted to Twitter, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said an emergency rental pump was installed at OB Curtis on Wednesday. Broken pumps at the plant led to low water pressure and breakdowns.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Lumumba said city officials expected water pressure to start rising later in the evening.

Bobbie Fairley, who has lived in Jackson all her life, owns Magic Hands Hair Design in South Jackson. The 59-year-old said she had to cancel five appointments on Wednesday because she needed high water pressure to remove chemicals from the hair during treatments.

She had to buy water to wash her hair to try to fit in every possible date. When customers don’t come, she loses money.

“It’s a big burden,” she said. “I can’t afford this. I can’t afford it at all. »

Jackson State University had to install temporary restrooms for students and was expecting the delivery of portable showers on Wednesday, President Thomas Hudson said.

Hudson said the city’s water issues were an ongoing challenge for the historically black university as it struggled to attract students.

“It complicates things in terms of what we’re trying to do, our core mission, which is education,” Hudson said.

He said the university is beginning to work on a plan for a self-contained water supply system using some of the federal funding made available to historically black colleges and universities.

Shannon Wilson, whose daughter just started her second year at Jackson State, said her daughter’s dorm has regained some pressure, but the water coming out of it is brown. Her daughter has gone to live with a friend off campus. But Wilson, who lives in St. Louis, can’t help but worry about her.

“We feel helpless,” Wilson said. “Being over 800 miles from Jackson, I can’t do anything but worry.”

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Michael Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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AP White House correspondent Josh Boak contributed to this report.

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