After Obama Campaign Visit, Delta Community Waits

For years, Greenville, Miss., has struggled with the yellowish-brown water that flows from its taps. Although the water meets federal and state standards, city leaders believe that it has hampered the community's economic development. They hope to install a filtration system to take care of the problem, but have yet to receive federal stimulus money for their proposal.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009

GREENVILLE, Miss. -- In the blur of his campaign, it was just another overnight stop: a Holiday Inn Express in Greenville, dead in the heart of this forsaken land called the Delta.

In the lobby, atop the front desk, a card in a plastic frame greeted guests. It served as an alert, a quaint warning of sorts: "You may be wondering why our water is brown -- it's the cypress tree roots, in the springs underground. Y'all can drink our water and bathe without fear. For no one lives longer than the folks around here."

Barack Obama passed the card on the way to his room. There, the bathroom sink and shower offered exactly what the card predicted: a stream of yellowish-brown water, to be found in every room. It came from a Greenville city well, which pumped the same alarming-looking water into all the homes and businesses in the area. City leaders and hotel employees emphasized that although it looked bad, the brown water met all federal and state safety standards, and that residents commonly drank it and bathed in it.

The next morning, Obama walked past the warning card again, on his way out of the hotel and into an SUV that would ferry him to a restaurant for a breakfast speech. He found himself sitting in the vehicle with Greenville's mayor, 33-year-old Heather McTeer Hudson, who had come to believe that the brown water was seriously harming her city's image, impeding its efforts to lure new businesses. She hoped to get rid of the color with a filtration system that several American and foreign cities had used to take care of their own brown-water problems. But struggling Greenville had no money to pay for such a system, another complication in an array of infrastructure quandaries for which Hudson was hoping to obtain federal assistance. As their 10-minute ride began, Obama said to the mayor, as she recalls, "Tell me about Greenville's needs, the Delta's needs."

She mentioned what she regarded as the key to her agenda -- the link between improving Greenville's old water, sewer and road systems and luring new employers to the hurting city, which had witnessed a decline of about 10 percent of its population in recent years, dipping below 40,000.

At a street corner, staring out a window at some boarded-up buildings, Obama asked her how many jobs had been lost in Greenville.

In the past 10 years, 8,000 people have lost their jobs, she answered.

The restaurant was nearly in sight. Hudson raised the point more important to her than any other: Obama should not forget her city. "I hope you come back to the Delta and Greenville after you are elected," she said.

They soon arrived at the restaurant, another establishment that served brown water to anybody who asked for a glass. Obama's visit constituted an expression of thanks: Greenville and the rest of the Mississippi Delta, upward of 65 percent African American, would be providing him with vital support that day in his statewide primary-election victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton. He spoke to an overflow crowd, recounting the discussion he'd had just minutes earlier in the SUV. "The mayor, as we were driving over here, was telling me a little bit about some of the challenges of the Delta generally. . . .," he said. "One of the challenges, I think for the next president, is making sure that we're serving all the communities, and not just some communities."

He promised the audience the same thing he had assured Hudson: He would not forget them, and he would be back.

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In recent weeks, as even staunch supporters of the Obama administration's $787 billion two-year stimulus package have questioned the program's lagging pace of job creation, a small but increasingly restive group of African American municipal officials in Southern states have complained that not enough money is reaching communities like those found in the chronically impoverished Delta. Their ranks include Hudson, who frequently encounters constituents steadfastly loyal to Obama but nonetheless asking when help from his administration is coming.

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