JACKSON, Miss. — Gov. Tate Reeves on Thursday deployed 600 National Guard troops at mass water distribution sites across the Mississippi capital as workers struggled to repair beleaguered plant pumps that have left many without reliable running water for weeks, with no end in sight.
By afternoon, cars had lined up at the state sites, including at the state fairgrounds, where officials told reporters the locations would be supplied by 108 trucks for the next few days, enough water for the city’s 150,000 residents, plus 30,000 out-of-town workers.
“To everyone in the city: I know that you’re dealing with a profoundly unfair situation,” said Reeves, flanked by state officials and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. “It’s frustrating, it’s wrong and it needs to be fixed.”
He touted some progress: By Thursday, one of the plant’s two broken pumps had been replaced with an emergency rental pump, doubling water pressure from the day before, Reeves said. The second pump was expected to be repaired early next week, although it was not clear when water service would be restored citywide, he said.
Reeves declared a state of emergency late Monday after flooding from the Pearl River worsened problems at one of the city’s two water treatment plants. The city has been under a boil-water notice since late July due to what the state called quality issues, and the water plant has been plagued by problems in recent years including staff shortages, failed environmental inspections, a freeze and a fire.
On Tuesday, President Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state and on Wednesday called Lumumba to discuss response efforts, including support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.
An aide said Biden expressed his desire to address the crisis and help rebuild Jackson’s water infrastructure.
Lumumba said Vice President Harris also contacted him, while FEMA Administrator Dana Criswell spoke with Reeves and was due to visit Jackson on Friday. FEMA officials and EPA experts were also on the ground coordinating with state teams, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
“We’re focusing our efforts on immediate needs to make sure there’s safe drinking water for those that need it,” FEMA spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg tweeted.
Reeves, a Republican, and Lumumba, a Democrat, have both faced criticism that they allowed the city’s infrastructure problems to languish, criticism reflected in scathing online comments from residents during Thursday’s live-streamed briefing. But Reeves dismissed accusations of partisanship and the pair invoked the need to work together.
“My representation here is a symbol of the unity that is taking place, a symbol of the coalition that is working arm in arm to ensure that we keep the most primary focus on the residents of Jackson,” Lumumba said, noting that “as the governor said, there may become a time when certain other questions come forward.”
Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” ahead of the briefing, Lumumba said the city had been warning of problems for three years, saying that “it is not a matter of if the systems will fail, but when.”
“It certainly has been an accumulation of challenges and divestment over years, more than three decades. …” he said. “We’re happy to have the state aboard. We’ve been going it alone for far too long.” He said state and federal assistance will be necessary, calling the broken water system a “problem which is not within the city’s capacity to meet,” given fixes would cost an estimated $2 billion.
Historically, Jackson’s water problems have disproportionately affected the city’s low-income, Black communities, said LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, co-founders of the local advocacy group Black Voters Matter.
“At the root of this crisis is systemic racism, and the local and state governments’ intentional negligence to redirect infrastructure funds that could have helped solve this issue years ago,” they said in a statement, noting the city is about 83 percent Black.
“This crisis is not an isolated event,” they wrote, citing the water crisis in Flint, Mich., which spawned criminal investigations, public officials’ resignations and a class-action settlement of $641 million this year.
Councilman Aaron Banks, who has represented Jackson’s predominantly Black, low-income south side for six years, said it has been disproportionately affected by water service disruptions, for which he blamed not just race but also class. Banks visited the water plant Thursday and said he was encouraged to see federal experts arriving to help.
“We’re praying that one of the pumps that are running now does not break down because there’s no backup pump,” he said. “Right now there’s good flow. Thing is, you have a lot of aging equipment and it contributes to things breaking down, especially when the system has been under so much stress.”
He worried that rain forecast for the next few days could swell the Pearl River again and prompt renewed flooding.
Living in “Deep South Jackson,” he said, he hasn’t gone a week in the past two years without some water disruption. Lately, he’s been showering at his mother’s home nearby, which has well water.
“For us, unfortunately, it’s becoming a norm,” Banks said.
The city’s water pressure and quality remained unreliable across town Thursday, from the south side to the tony Fondren neighborhood north of downtown and high-rise subsidized housing for the elderly and disabled. Jackson schools held classes online as they have since Tuesday, some restaurants closed and portable toilets appeared outside the Capitol and Jackson State University.
Across the city, nonprofit groups such as the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, which is made up of over 30 organizations in the state, have been setting up water distribution centers in the middle of affected neighborhoods. The hours-long lines at those centers sometimes stretch nearly a mile.
Sarah Stripp, managing director of the nonprofit Springboard to Opportunities, has been trying to supply water to 700 families the group works with in federally subsidized housing.
“It’s been chaos,” she said. “There has been varying water pressure depending on where folks are in the city. It’s gone up and down in all the communities we work in. There’s been times it runs clear, times it runs brown.”
She said elderly residents have had a hard time finding transportation to water distribution sites. And her group has struggled to find water suppliers in and out of state.
“Yesterday, the closest we could find was Memphis,” she said. The group eventually paid $2,000 to truck water in from Alabama, she said, and were still unsure how much would arrive Friday.
Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, said grass-roots organizations are struggling to meet the immense need. People began to line up at one of the group’s distribution sites two hours before it was scheduled to open on Thursday morning.
“This is unbearable,” said Veronica Jackson, a 39-year-old mother of two boys, ages 6 and 14. “We’re paying $2 a gallon for water, and that’s if you can even find it.”
But Jackson feels lucky. Her younger son’s private school has remained open, and she is able to leave her 14-year-old at home to do Zoom classes on his own while she works. She says it’s not ideal, but she has to keep working, in part to continue to afford water.
“I’ve been paying anywhere between $300 and $400 a month on water bills and you can’t even use the water half the time,” she said.
Before Thursday, the governor and the mayor had been running separate daily news conferences to update residents about the crisis, which Jessica Carter, organizing director for the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, said highlights the heart of the problem facing Jackson’s residents.
“The governor talks about unity and togetherness in all of his speeches,” Carter said. “But it seems like they can’t even be in the same room.”
Carter, who moved to Jackson three years ago, said that the first thing everyone told her was to not drink the water without filtering it first. Now she’s worried about even using it to bathe her 2-year-old daughter.
“I’ve been very concerned about giving my daughter a bath,” she said. “It’s bath time, she’s a kid, she likes to put stuff in her mouth during bath time, so I have to be extra vigilant.”