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The 150,000 residents of Jackson, Mississippi face a humanitarian crisis as access to clean water in the city disappears. For more than a month, Jacksonians have suffered under a local advisory to boil their tap water before using it. Now, as record flooding shuts down Jackson’s main water pump, residents of this largely Black city are at risk of losing water access altogether.
“Due to complications from the Pearl River flooding, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is declaring a water system emergency,” the city said in a statement. “Water pressure issues at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant are resulting in low or no water pressure for many Jackson customers.”
Mayor Lumumba said he expects the water shortage “is likely to last the next couple of days.”
But the mayor’s optimism of a quick fix to the issue differs from the more dire predictions from other leaders.
Mississippi’s Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann (R) said the city’s water and sewer system is “on the brink of collapsing“. Republican Governor Tate Reeves echoed Hosemann’s concern, saying the pump failure means the city won’t be able “to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets” or meet other critical needs.
As a result of the water loss, all public schools in the city have moved to virtual learning “indefinitely”.
“We are closely monitoring the water conditions on a day-by-day basis at our schools while conferring with city officials to determine when scholars and staff can safely return for in-person learning,” the school district said in a statement.
Jackson’s water crisis has been months in the making
The City of Jackson was first placed under a boil water advisory on July 29th. The order came from the state health department after sampling showed the water may harbor bacteria. For the advisory to be lifted, the city would need two consecutive days of clear testing.
In mid-August, when Mayor Lumumba publicly addressed the water issues, he hinted the problem was with the state’s testing method.
“It’s one out of 120 samples that are pooled across the city. It’s consistently been around one, one site or one sample out of the 120 that comes up poor, which is a little strange,” Lumumba told reporters.
“I’m not alleging anything, but we want to get to the bottom of, you know, what we are seeing.”
The boil order from July was still in place when the recent floods hit. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that Mayor Lumumba issued a state of emergency in the city.
Governor Reeves, whose executive mansion is in downtown Jackson, is also just now taking clear action on the crisis.
In his press conference on Monday, Reeves said “there was a near certainty that Jackson would fail to produce running water in the next several weeks or months. Unfortunately, that failure appears to have begun.”
State officials knew a massive pump failure was imminent. Still, they took few discernible steps to prevent it.
Last year, when Jackson’s water system failed after a freeze, Reeves was asked if the state would provide emergency funds.
According to the Jackson-based Clarion Ledger, Reeves “balked” at the idea.
“The city of Jackson (should) start collecting their water bill payments before they start going around and asking everyone else to pony up more money,” Reeves retorted.
Jackson residents and businesses suffer as water crisis unfolds
Amid political rancor, residents of the city of Jackson continue to suffer while the catastrophe escalates.
Famed Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders said his program was “operating in crisis mode”.
“I gotta get these kids off-campus,” Sanders said. “[I gotta get them] into a hotel and accommodate them so that they can shower properly and take care of their needs.”
Local reporter Chris Fields reported Tuesday that low water pressure caused the air conditioning at a medical facility to shut down. “The dialysis unit is now running off of a tanker that was overnighted from Missouri,” Fields wrote on Facebook.
Several small businesses that have struggled under the boil water notice have temporarily closed.
Residents who want clean drinking water have to drive to distribution stations in the hopes of receiving a pack of water bottles.
Some elected officials push for immediate solutions as the crisis worsens
State legislators representing Jackson have signed a letter urging Governor Reeves to act. The letter, signed by five state senators, pleads for the Governor to call a special session to address the crisis.
“The people of Jackson, Byram, Ridgeland and Hinds County are in day 32 of a boil water notice,” the letter reads. “Water pressure issues are shutting down schools, businesses and government offices. Raw sewage discharge has closed the Pearl River. We must act now.”
In a Facebook post accompanying the letter, Senator David Blount said “the State of Mississippi has $2.5 billion in the bank today – money that can be spent to fix the problem. Jackson legislators must work with state and city leaders to hammer out an agreement.”
Sen. Blount called on the city, county and state to work together using surplus funds and COVID relief dollars to address the water crisis. He acknowledges the Governor and House Speaker will likely demand changes to enhance accountability by local officials, but says accepting those accountability methods will be worth it to help residents.
“If we can convince the Governor and state legislative leaders to spend what is needed to fix our water system, we must say YES,” Blount writes. “Inaction and complaints are not an option.”
“The state, with unprecedented money in the bank, must step up and invest in Jackson and save a system that serves almost one-tenth of all Mississippians,” Blount continued. “We must [put] aside political and partisan differences and act now.”