‘You can’t bathe. You can’t wash.’ Water crisis hobbles Jackson, Mississippi

She made her newly familiar rounds, driving in and out of parking lots, picking up cases of bottled water for herself, her husband and her neighbours. This had become her new normal since mid-February, when an epic winter storm blanketed a wide swath of the state in ice and nearly collapsed the notoriously rickety municipal water system.

It was wearing her down, she said, and was “more than a mental challenge.”

The city’s water system, parts of which are more than 100 years old, was no match for the winter storm, the same epic weather event that crushed Texas’ power grid and water systems, leaving millions of Texans without heat or drinkable water. Across Jackson, the freezing temperatures burst pipes and water mains and left a trail of misery that has stretched on for nearly a month.

More than 70% of the city’s water customers remained this week under a notice to boil water, including the senior living complex where Avant, 62, and her husband have an apartment. On Wednesday, she drove to five makeshift water distribution centres to stock up.

The crisis, while this time protracted, is not new in Jackson, a city of about 160,000 where a majority of residents, including Avant, are Black. In Jackson, boil-water notices are common and an enduring municipal drama has played out for decades, as white flight, an eroding tax base and poor management have left the remaining residents with old and broken pipes, but without the public funding to fix them.

This week, as more running water returned to homes where residents had relied on bottled water to drink and cook, officials sought both money to solve the problem and a place to lay the blame.

Parts of Jackson’s water infrastructure are relics of the early part of the last century. A few years ago, a study found elevated levels of lead in the water, prompting comparisons to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. More recently, Jackson was plagued by a faulty billing system that failed to charge some customers and accidentally sent others statements totalling thousands of dollars.

Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, a Democrat and African American, has estimated that modernising the city’s water infrastructure could cost $2 billion. Last week, he asked Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who is white, for $47 million to help repair the city’s damaged water system.

Reeves called in the National Guard last month to help distribute water and has hinted that the state might take over Jackson’s water system. His chief of staff, Brad White, said the governor’s office was helping the city explore securing low-interest state loans to help pay for upgrades. He also noted that Lumumba had been meeting with members of the Republican-dominated state Legislature, including Lt Gov Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, in an effort to secure more state funding.

In an interview this week, Lumumba said he hoped the current crisis would finally push both state and city officials in the direction of a long-term solution.

“There’s a saying that you should allow no crisis to go to waste,” he said. “It’s crises like these that really allow us to take stock of conditions of where we are as a city, where we are as a state and hopefully it allows us to build the resolve to address it.”

The city has had a dwindling tax base for decades, after the integration of schools and other public spaces in Jackson triggered a dramatic flight of white residents. In many cases, they took their wealth and tax dollars with them. In 1960, the city was about 64% white and 36% Black. Today it is about 16% white and 81% Black.

This week, the water barely trickled from the faucets in the apartment of Carolyn Willis. A retired nursing home cook who is Black, Willis said that in a white-majority city, the kind of water crisis she and her neighbours continued to face “wouldn’t be happening.”

“I don’t think our water would be like it is,” said Willis, 69. “I don’t feel like we would have to pick up the phone and call these people about the water.”

Jackson’s crisis shares some similarities with Detroit, where deindustrialisation and white flight emptied out that city, leaving a smaller population to support vast infrastructure systems.

“Jackson’s infrastructure was built at a time when the population was much higher, and white flight has led to divestment,” Lumumba, the mayor, said. “It has left fewer people to maintain what was built for more people.”

Lavern Avant washes her hands with a bottle of drinking water at her apartment in Jackson, Miss, March 11, 2021. Rory Doyle/The New York Times

Lavern Avant washes her hands with a bottle of drinking water at her apartment in Jackson, Miss, March 11, 2021. Rory Doyle/The New York Times

Its troubles also mirror those of another capital city, Washington, DC, where large numbers of government properties pay no property tax. Lumumba said that the city “provides water for the state of Mississippi, but we don’t get paid for the water we provide to them. If we simply charged the state like any other customer, we’d be in a lot better position.”

Residents like Willis are ready for the inconvenience to end. “You can’t bathe,” she said. “You can’t wash.”

So are businesses. Scott Evans, an owner of a dog-grooming service on the south side of Jackson, has been using a pickup to haul trash cans full of water from his home 18 miles away in Florence.

The business, Grooming Unlimited, typically handles 70 dogs a week. But these days, the limit has been about two or three dogs a day. Evans and his sister, Mary Ann Bowman, heat the water on a butane burner on the back porch and then bathe dogs with jugs of warmed water.

“It’s already killing my back, lifting jugs,” Bowman said. “You’ve got to rinse them. You’ve got to wash them.”

The business owners are frustrated but philosophical. “We’re going to have to deal with it. I’m 63 years old. I’m too old to move somewhere else and pay for it again,” Bowman said. “We’re just going to have to tough it out.”

Bowman said there was plenty of blame to go around. “You can’t blame one mayor. This has been going on for 50 years,” she said.

Earlier this week, Avant finished her scavenger hunt with a trunk full of bottled water that she brought back to her seniors’ complex. She gave two cases to a neighbour and three to a cousin who broke a leg in the February ice storm.

Avant and her husband, both Mississippi natives, retired from their property remodelling business in Atlanta a couple of years ago and returned to Jackson to be closer to family. She spoke warmly of the camaraderie that the recent water crisis had engendered as neighbours worked together to scour the city and keep the bottles coming.

But she also said she’d had enough. Soon, she said, she and her husband would move back to Atlanta.

© 2021 New York Times News Service

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