As Mississippi’s capital faces a third day without reliable water service Wednesday – pushing some residents to stand in long lines for bottled water and keeping schools and businesses closed – the mayor says he hopes water service can be restored this week.
The problem came to a head Monday, when river flooding nudged an already-hobbling main treatment plant to failure, meaning Jackson couldn’t necessarily produce enough water to flush toilets or even fight fires, officials say. The water system has been troubled for years and the city was already under a boil-water notice since late July.
Officials “are optimistic that we can see water restored to our residents within this week” in the city of roughly 150,000 residents, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN Wednesday.
“There is a huge mountain to climb in order to achieve that,” he said. Crews “are working persistently to restore the pressure, to refill the tanks across the city,” Lumumba said.
But the water crisis is still upending nearly all aspects of life in the city, where public schools shifted to virtual learning Tuesday.
Cassandra Welchlin, a mother of three, told CNN her kids are out of school and they’ve had to buy water to cook, brush their teeth and for other basic necessities.
Brown water has been running from her taps, said Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable.
“We still would not use that water. We don’t boil it to do anything with it because grit is in the water,” she said. “It’s a really bad public safety issue.”
The state says help is on the way: Gov. Tate Reeves declared an emergency and activated the National Guard to help distribute bottled water, and said he sent resources for urgent repairs and maintenance at the plant. Some service has already improved, and truckloads of water are coming for distribution to the public, officials said.
President Joe Biden, who signed a major disaster declaration Tuesday triggering assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spoke to Lumumba on Wednesday to discuss emergency efforts, the White House said.
Residents and businesses still face numerous challenges.
At a water distribution event Tuesday at Hawkins Field Airport, residents waited in a line more than a mile long – and some were turned away when the site ran out of its 700 cases of water in just two hours.
Some stores ran thin of supplies. Jackson resident Jeraldine Watts was able to snag some of the last water bottle cases at a grocery store Monday, she told CNN. She and her family de ella have been using bottled or boiled tap water for everything, including cooking and washing dishes.
“I keep saying we’re going to be the next Michigan,” Watts said, “and it looks like that’s exactly what we’re headed for.”
Watts was referring to Flint, Michigan, which was hit with a water crisis around 2015 when tainted drinking water containing lead and other toxins was detected in homes and residents reported children suffering from mysterious illnesses.
Jackson’s University of Mississippi Medical Center said air conditioning at one facility is not functioning properly because of low water pressure, and portable restrooms are being used at other facilities.
At Jackson State University, there is “low to no water pressure at all campus locations,” and water is being delivered to students, officials said. The university’s head football coach, Deion Sanders, said its football program is in “crisis mode.”
Advocates have previously pointed to systemic and environmental racism as among the causes of Jackson’s ongoing water issues and lack of resources to address them. About 82.5% of Jackson’s population identifies as Black or African American, according to census data, while the state’s legislature is majority White.
The water system has suffered from “deferred maintenance over three decades or more,” and the city will need funding help to catch up, Lumumba said earlier this week.
Though Jackson has seen numerous water issues over the years, acute problems cascaded since at least late July, when the state imposed a boil-water notice for Jackson after high levels of turbidity, or cloudiness, were noticed at the city’s OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant . The cloudiness carries higher chances that the water could contain disease-causing organisms, the city said.
Around the same time, the main pumps at OB Curtis – the city’s main treatment plant – were severely damaged, forcing the facility to operate on smaller backup pumps, Reeves said this week without elaborating on the damage. The city announced August 9 that the troubled pumps were being pulled offline.
The governor said he was told Friday that “it was a near-certainty that Jackson would fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months if something did not materially improve.”
Then, flooding: Heavy rains last week pushed the Pearl River to overflow and flood some Jackson streets, cresting Monday.
OB Curtis received additional water from a reservoir because of the flooding, and that changed the way the plant treated the water, causing the plant to produce even less than it was, and that severely lowered the water pressure across the city, Lumumba said Monday.
Some improvements have been made at the plant, but more is needed, state officials said Tuesday evening.
On Tuesday, the plant was pumping about 30 million gallons of a day; it is rated to pump about 50 million gallons a day, Jim Craig, director of health protection at the state health department, told reporters Tuesday.
Officials hope to “bring in an additional rented pump that will allow us to put at least 4 million gallons” more into the system, perhaps to install by Wednesday, the governor said Tuesday.
“That is progress and will help,” Reeves said.
Reeves has said the state would split the cost of emergency repairs with the city.
As a fuller solution, Lumumba has said it would take $2 billion to fully repair and replace the dated water and sewer systems, and that’s money the city isn’t close to having.
“I have said on multiple occasions that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ our system would fail, but a matter of ‘when’ our system would fail,” the mayor said Tuesday, adding that the city has been “going at it alone for the better part of two years” when it comes to the water crisis.
Lumumba told CNN the city is working on more water distribution events.
Beginning Thursday, seven mega distribution sites with 36 truckloads of water will be available each a day for the public, Lt. Col. Stephen McCraney, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday.
Corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Walmart and Save A Lot, as well as volunteer organizations are also donating water to the city, McCraney added.
The city is also providing flushing water, Jackson City Councilman Aaron Banks told CNN.
“One of the first things that we realized is that people need to be able to flush, because that becomes a problem as far as making sure that people have that quality of life that they need,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we need a fix and the same attention that was given to Flint, Michigan, we need that same attention given to Jackson,” Banks said.
At Jackson State, some students are raising money to buy water for Jackson residents in need, and have created a hotline that those residents can call to ask for help.
Maise Brown, 20, a junior at Jackson State, organized the group of about 20 students, called the Mississippi Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team. The group launched a social media campaign Tuesday to raise money and to publicize the hotline.
As of Wednesday morning, the group raised about $2,000 and received about 10 calls asking for help.
“We had disabled residents calling us … for help,” Brown said. “We also had people who live outside the city call us and ask us to help their elderly parents.”
The group plans to knock on the doors of homes, hoping to reach people who might not see its social media campaign, Brown said.
Jackson’s water system has been faced with serious issues for years.
In early 2020, the Jackson water system failed an Environmental Protection Agency inspection, which found the drinking water had the potential to be host to harmful bacteria or parasites.
In February 2021, a severe winter storm hit, freezing and bursting pipes and leaving many residents without water for a month.
“Since that time, there has not been a month where we have not experienced no-flow to low-flow in certain areas in south Jackson, and so it’s very frustrating,” Banks, the city councilman, told CNN.
In July 2021, the EPA and the city entered into an agreement to address “long-term challenges and make needed improvements to the drinking water system.” The EPA also recently announced $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds for Mississippi.