The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Jackson, Miss., two weeks with no running water and no end in sight

Broken water mains in Jackson, Miss., have devastated residents as well as many businesses and restaurants. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

JACKSON, Miss. — Two painters' buckets filled with dirty water sit near the front door of April Jackson's apartment. A dead mosquito floats in one. She plans to use the water to fill her toilets later.

Like many residents here, she has been without water nearly two weeks after an ice storm rendered the capital city’s main water plant nearly inoperable. The problem has been decades in the making. Without federal help to update the city’s almost 100-year-old infrastructure, officials say it will happen again.

On Feb. 15, residents across Mississippi woke up to a blanket of ice, uncommon in this part of the South. The ice trapped many residents in their homes and rendered roads impassable. Days later, another winter storm made its way through the state, leaving residents in central Mississippi without power and ultimately resulting in six deaths.

While power was eventually restored, the city of Jackson soon faced another problem: lack of running water. On Feb. 17, the system lost power, and officials immediately issued a boil-water notice to 43,000 connections, including households and businesses.

Grocery store shelves had already been picked bare thanks to the ice storm, and bottled water was scarce. Local organizations stepped up to deliver cases of bottled water to those in need.

Two weeks later, many residents still don’t have water. Officials say it’s impossible to know how many homes are completely without water, as some may have a trickle coming out of their pipes. But Jackson Public Works Director Charles Williams said Monday morning that the current pressure was at 37 pounds per square inch — it’s normally between 85 and 90.

“The system is back up, but we’re still not consistent with the pressure that we need,” Williams said. “This is an old system, so obviously it’s not responding as quickly as we would like.”

In Northeast Jackson, Nancy Palmer has been without water since Feb. 16. The 82-year-old lives in an apartment in a senior citizens home and uses a walker. Her sister had water, but Palmer couldn’t use her shower because it’s not equipped with handrails she needs to avoid falling. So, to bathe and flush the toilet, Palmer paid the man who drives her to and from doctor’s appointments to bring her water every other day.

“I spent like $160 on water to flush my commodes,” she said. “That’s what we had to bathe with, to brush our teeth. We had to buy bottled water for that. You couldn’t get gallons, just the bottles in the case.”

She bathed in the sink, using the cold water to wash her hair and body. Friday, her toilets began filling up with water. By Monday, she “had a little more than a trickle,” enough to fill a pot and boil it for dish washing. She’s still bathing in the sink.

Palmer has lived in Jackson since 1956 but is now contemplating moving out of the city. She’s “disgusted” with the entire situation, but particularly the fact that water problems have continued despite the 1 percent sales tax in the city limits. If she encountered someone who wanted to move to the city, she would advise against it.

“I think everybody in the state of Mississippi knows about Jackson,” she said. “I can’t even describe how I feel. I’m disgusted, despondent, everybody here is. It’s like nobody cares. You’re just here.”

Without a major system upgrade, the system will fail again, Williams said.

“It’s going to happen again, it’s just a matter of time,” he said.

While the state’s top two richest counties border Jackson, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said the city doesn’t have the tax base to support the needed improvements. Referencing what he calls the “$2 billion challenge,” Lumumba said Jackson is facing not only a water crisis, but the roads and infrastructure need repairs, as well. Jackson residents voted in a 1 percent sales tax in 2014 that generates approximately $13 million annually toward roads, water, sewage and drainage, but it’s “a drop in the bucket” compared to what the city needs to make long-term repairs and upgrades, he said.

“Even with that, we are far and away from the ability to be able to address these issues in a significant way,” he said.

Lumumba called for help from the state and local government, saying, “we need direct resources that can come to the city of Jackson.”

Last week, Gov. Tate Reeves said on Twitter he “secured tankers tonight to provide non-potable water for Jackson to jumpstart the system and accelerate the fix,” deploying the National Guard to assist. In his tweet, Reeves said, “We will restore clean water for the people of Jackson.”

Williams said he “hopes and prays” all Jackson residents will have water by the end of this week but declined to name a definite timeline, saying, “we’re taking it day by day.”

The water outage has affected pockets throughout the city, such as North Jackson or the Fondren area near downtown, but it has largely been residents in South Jackson who have been most hurt.

Rep. Ronnie Crudup (D) represents the city of Jackson in the state legislature. Like many of his constituents, Crudup, a resident of South Jackson, has been without water for nearly two weeks.

“It started to slowly come back on yesterday, but this morning, it seemed to stall back out again,” he said Monday. “We’ve dealt with this for numerous years. Every time we have a hard freeze, there’s going to be something that’s going to break.”

Water woes aren’t new for the city’s residents. Boil notices are so common that a T-shirt shop sells items that proclaim “Welcome to Boil Water Alert Mississippi.” But Crudup, a lifelong resident, can’t remember a notice in recent memory lasting nearly this long.

For residents like April Jackson, two weeks without water has been trying. A large pot sits on the counter in one of the bathrooms in her apartment. Her children have gone down to a nearby creek to fill it up so they can flush the toilets. She needs to wash their hair but, in a household of eight, a case of bottled water is gone in 30 minutes, and choices have to be made.

Laundry is piling up. There are piles of clothes in her bedroom; she estimates she’ll have to spend $100 at the laundromat when she’s finally able to go. She can’t afford it, she said, but it’s better than throwing clothes away. One of her youngest children, a ­4-year-old, has regressed in potty training and has started going to the bathroom in their pants. Without water, the soiled clothes have gone in the trash.

By Monday afternoon, water was running in Jackson’s apartment but not yet at full pressure. Until it does, she’s keeping the buckets of stagnant water, saying, “You never know when it’ll run out again.”