For residents of Jackson, Miss., a water crisis is nothing new

Photo for The Washington Post by Camille Lenain.
Roshonda Snell and her 2-year-old daughter sit on their stoop in the house they have been renting for the past three years in South Jackson, Miss.

JACKSON, Miss. – What stood out this week was the calm. The streets were quiet, and residents queued expectantly for resources.

The entire city of more than 150,000 was without safe drinking water, with no end in sight. Many residents here say they adapted long ago to catastrophic government failure.

“Jackson’s water’s been messed up; I don’t even feel like they should be issuing people bills,” said Roshonda Snell, 32, who works at a local hotel. “It’s infected, and you can’t even do nothing with it.”

Snell is a beneficiary of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and says she has been using most of the money she receives from it to buy water for her family for a while. “I spend about $200 on bottled water every month. That’s mainly what I use that money for, to buy five big cases of water for the month,” said Snell, a Jackson native. “I really want to leave Jackson so bad.”

The water system in Jackson, the Mississippi capital, has been failing for years. In 2021, a harsh winter storm knocked the system out for a month. Even when water is flowing from the taps, residents struggle with intermittent boil-water advisories and high bills for water that is not always safe to drink. This week, in part because of severe floods, the treatment plant failed completely, leaving the city’s residents without water to drink, bathe or even flush toilets.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves declared Jackson’s ongoing water crisis an “immediate health threat.” Experts say this crisis was years in the making, a result of inadequate funding for essential infrastructure upgrades. For the past year, leaders of this majority-Black, Democrat-led city have pushed for additional funding from the White Republicans who run the state. Little has come of those appeals.

On Thursday, state officials announced that 108 tractor-trailers loaded with water were on their way to Jackson for all of the residents. Reeves deployed 600 Mississippi National Guard troops to seven water distribution sites across the state capital. The governor said at least one water treatment pump was expected to be repaired early next week, although it was not clear when water service would be restored citywide.

But for many here, it’s too little, too late.

Photo for The Washington Post by Rory Doyle
Mississippi National Guard members take a break from the heat in a relief tent at a water distribution site at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson

“I haven’t had proper water running for at least about a year and a half,” said Kwame Braxton, 32, a visual artist who lives in West Jackson.

Braxton was home, watching his niece and nephew. The Jackson Public School District announced Monday that it would shift to virtual learning until running water had been restored. Braxton, who owns a digital fabrication lab, stepped in to host his young relatives because he is able to work from home.

“It’s hard to work, but you do what you have to do for family,” Braxton said.

For over a year, Braxton has had trouble flushing one of his toilets, and the water in the pipes has a brownish tint.

During a freeze last year, the pipes in front of Braxton’s house burst, flooding his front lawn and more than quadrupling his water bills. He said it took him more than three months of calling the city to get technicians down to his property to shut off the valve so he could get a plumber in to make repairs.

“It really is just government mismanagement and a lack of caring about what happens in the inner-city community,” Braxton said. “You go to these different communities outside of Jackson and you can see the difference; they will put funding towards fixing their infrastructure over there.”

For Veronica Jackson, just getting the basics is like having a second job. Jackson, who works in foster home licensing at the Mississippi Department of Human Services, has a tight schedule. After working all day, she volunteers with the football teams on which her two boys, ages 6 and 14, play.

“This is unbearable,” Jackson said. “We’re paying $2 a gallon for water, and that’s if you can even find it.”

But she said she feels lucky. Her younger son’s private school has remained open, and she is able to leave her 14-year-old at home to attend Zoom classes. She says that it’s not ideal but that she has to keep working, in part to afford hundreds of dollars of water billing monthly.

“No one is taking responsibility” for the crisis, she said. “You have the governor and the mayor blaming each other. They just keep going back and forth. Both of them knew the water needed to be fixed. This has been going on for years.”

Benny Ivey, a plumber and co-director of the group Strong Arms of Jackson, said the city’s water crisis is finally getting the national exposure it deserves.

“We have people really seeing what’s going on,” Ivey said. “I’m glad that the governor and other people are finally saying something about this and saying they’re going to do something about it. But . . . we’ll see if they put money where their mouth is.”

As a plumber, Ivey knows the city’s crumbling water infrastructure well.

“There’s always water lines breaking and sewer lines breaking,” he said. “I’ve had situations where I have my guys replace a sewer line from the house to the road and you get to the road and find out the city’s line is messed up and the city makes the homeowner bust the road up, fix the line in the road and then asphalt the road. What kind of place does that?”

Ivey grew up in South Jackson but moved to a suburb in nearby Rankin County.

“No gunshots, good water, good sewer,” Ivey said of Florence, Miss., the city where he lives. “It’s like night and day.”

Tammie Williams, who lives up the street from Snell in South Jackson, said she dreams of leaving Jackson.

The same heavy rain that caused the Pearl River to flood and shut down the O.B. Curtis Water Plant led to a sewage backup in her house. Raw sewage came up her pipes and erupted into her bathroom. Nearly a week later, despite calls to the city, there is still a pond of raw sewage at the edge of her property. The breeze blows the smell straight into her yard.

Photo for The Washington Post by Rory Doyle.
National Guard members direct traffic during water distribution at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson.

Williams only uses the water to bathe, which is what officials have recommended, but she says she and one of her granddaughters have been dealing with what looks like an allergic reaction to the untreated water.

“We were looking a little like Hunchback of Notre Dame. . . . I had a lump here, and her cheeks were really rosy,” Williams said. “You can’t even shampoo your hair or anything.”

Williams is worried about the future for her children and grandchildren.

“It’s horrible, it’s horrible, everything is horrible,” she said. “We need to give the next generation a chance. I’m going to make sure my grandkids have a future.”

Jackson’s water crisis had been building for years, said Shambe Jones, Cooperation Jackson’s outreach coordinator. Jones pointed to a deal Jackson struck in 2013 with Siemens, a German multinational company, to clean up the city’s billing system. The project failed spectacularly, with the city suing and receiving a nearly $90 million settlement.

Jones said in the past few years, “I’ve noticed more and more abandoned homes, more and more abandoned buildings, more people leaving, worse road conditions, the water conditions getting worse,” he said. “I’ve witnessed all of it and I’ve witnessed how the surrounding towns have grown.”

Josephine Hartwell can remember Jackson before White flight decimated the city’s tax base. The 64-year-old grew up in Jackson before moving to Milwaukee with her husband. She returned to Jackson when her mother became ill.

“It used to be real nice. When I was a teenager, you would come here to have fun,” said Hartwell, who moved back to Mississippi in 2015. “But, now, this city is crazy.”

“There’s the lack of water, but it’s not just that,” she added. “Everything is torn up. I’m really happy though about this mayor, [Chokwe Antar Lumumba]. He’s trying to get things together, but it’s just frustrating and it’s tiring.”

The water crisis is just one of many facing Jackson, Hartwell said. She says every aspect of the city’s infrastructure needs to be addressed. She often has to take her car for repairs because of potholes. During the recent floods, she almost lost her car driving to work on a flooded bridge. She also says the city has to get crime under control. A few months ago, she was the victim of a carjacking.

“I get depressed, and it’s kind of scary,” she said. “I was working at [University of Mississippi Medical Center], I had to come home at night, and I quit because I had to drive home by myself.”

“But I just thank God that people are helping us now,” Hartwell said.