Mississippi's capital city hasn't had clean water in weeks, and there's no end in sight

Justin Vicory and Keisha Rowe, Mississippi Clarion Ledger
·9 min read

JACKSON, Miss. – Nearly three weeks after winter storms cut water to customers on Jackson's water system, some haven't seen as much as a trickle return.

What is there cannot be used to brush teeth, wash dishes or hands.

Taking a shower has also become cumbersome with many residents resorting to a cold water sponge bath.

Families have packed into area hotels for a brief respite from a proverbial rain with no end in sight.

City officials offer no hope of when the water will return, a firm number on how many are without or how much it's costing.

As much of the attention from the winter storm system that tore through the South in mid-February has gone toward the aftermath in Texas, thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, have also suffered — and will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future. Experts suggest Jackson's water situation is also a matter of public health, given basic sanitary needs as well as water quality issues.

Moving targets abound as officials try to respond

Reporters for the Clarion Ledger, part of the USA TODAY Network, sought answers from city, county and state officials about the ongoing water crisis on things including the city's plan for when large-scale outages occur, how outages are tracked and when water will be restored. The answers were few and far between, as officials blamed an antiquated system without needed innovations as well as a tax base that does not cover needed water system repairs.

Watch: Weeks after Mississippi winter storms, some residents still don't have water

City officials say the city's outdated water infrastructure makes it impossible to give a date when water will be fully restored. Some sections of the city's water system are nearly 100 years old. Years of underfunding have further worn it down. Water main breaks are exceedingly common across the city.

On Feb. 23, Gov. Tate Reeves said during a news conference that Jackson has long known of the issue and has received help from the state in the past.

"Many of these challenges in their water system were born over literally 30, 40, 50 years of negligence and ignoring the challenges of the pipes and the system," he said. "That 50 years of deferred maintenance is not something we’re going to fix in the next 6 to 8 hours."

Still no timeline on a return to normal

Jackson Public Works Director Charles Williams has given several tentative days on when service could return to affected residents. While he confirmed recently over 10,000 customers remain without water, he said there is no way to know exactly where outages take place, or how may there are.

Michelle Atoa, director of communications for Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, said the city compiles that information using resident calls to the city's 311 Action Line, currently devoted to reporting water main breaks, and through word-of-mouth reporting.

Nearly 100 breaks have been reported in the two weeks since the storm, but only 67 have been confirmed. Although most of them have been repaired, there's no timeframe for when the others will be checked.

Water shoots out of a broken six-inch water main north of the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and St. Charles Street, where the W-10 crew from the city of Jackson Water Maintenance Department pumps out the water so they can fix the break Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Water Maintenance Department crews are working throughout the city to fix breaks to help get water restored to residents after the recent winter storms that hit the area.
Water shoots out of a broken six-inch water main north of the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and St. Charles Street, where the W-10 crew from the city of Jackson Water Maintenance Department pumps out the water so they can fix the break Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Water Maintenance Department crews are working throughout the city to fix breaks to help get water restored to residents after the recent winter storms that hit the area.

Williams said several things need to happen before service can be fully restored. Maintaining water pressure at the treatment plants is crucial, he said, as is knowing the city will be able to lift its boil water advisory, in effect since Feb. 16.

"Until we get this consistency, it will be very hard," Williams said.

He said he was hopeful the filter issue would be resolved by Wednesday evening, but it became the newest entry on a list of moving targets that have been presented while thousands wait for service to return.

Officials have said there are approximately 43,000 connections on Jackson's water system to homes and businesses in Jackson and the city of Byram. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, those connections include more than 174,000 people.

Crisis could come with a heavy price tag and no way to pay

Officials have also not offered any indication on how big of a price tag could end up being associated specifically with the crisis. Lumumba has mentioned on several occasions that it would take $2 billion to improve the city's overall infrastructure woes and bring the sewer system up to federal compliance. City officials did not respond to questions on where that figure was derived.

According to city documents, $61.4 million of Jackson's proposed $375 million budget is supposed to go to the city's water and sewer operation and maintenance fund for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Officials have offered no documentation on how much of that money was budgeted for maintenance has been spent so far this year.

Watch: Texas and Mississippi ditch face mask rules as they try to return to pre-pandemic life

'Where's the cavalry?'

Lumumba declared a civil emergency on Feb. 19, which allows him to make decisions to help residents faster without council approval. Since then, several water distribution sites have been activated for bottled and non-potable water.

Some residents have been patient about having to travel as much as 30 minutes to get enough water to last a day, but frustration is mounting.

“I appreciate the tanks. I appreciate the bottled water. But I'd rather have the pipes fixed,” said Barbara Howard, a Jackson State University professor who lives in south Jackson. “It’s one thing to put a Band-Aid on the problem and it’s one thing to fix it. A 14-day Band-Aid is long enough.”

Derrick Kelly gives a Jackson resident a case of water at Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Miss., Monday, March 1, 2021. Water is still being distributed due to water outages around the city after February's winter storm.
Derrick Kelly gives a Jackson resident a case of water at Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Miss., Monday, March 1, 2021. Water is still being distributed due to water outages around the city after February's winter storm.

Other longtime Jackson residents familiar with temporary water outages in Jackson are losing hope, said Councilman De'Keither Stamps.

"People in my ward have an overall distrust of government anyways," said Stamps, whose ward includes several neighborhoods still without water. "Now they're starting to distrust the city. We're all knee deep in this and they keep asking, I keep asking, 'Where's the cavalry?"

'A 14-day Band-Aid is long enough': Many South Jackson residents still have no running water

Response from city, county, state leaders

Lumumba has said he reached out to Gov. Tate Reeves the first week of the water crisis but received no response, and was unable to connect with the governor. About a day later, Reeves said his response was providing resources to Jackson through the National Guard.

Lumumba, who has spoken often to national media outlets in recent days, did not respond to requests for comment from the Clarion Ledger either Wednesday or Thursday.

Malary White, director of external affairs with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said the agency has been assigned to help the city input damages, but said the assessment will take some time because Jackson is still actively combating the crisis.

Officials from the Hinds County Board of Supervisors and the Hinds County Emergency Management Agency did not provide a timeline for when a countywide assessment could be finished.

White said the deadline for counties to submit damage reports is March 21, but counties may still be able to be added to any disaster declarations after that date if their submitted damage reports get them past the threshold needed to qualify for assistance.

Water shortage a public health crisis

On Tuesday, the state's top health official at a press conference called the water shortage in Jackson a public health crisis.

"Basic sanitation and water is a foundational component of public health," State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said." It's one of the first things that made a difference in the turn of the century making people healthier."

Dobbs said the state Health Department continues to monitor the quality of Jackson's water supply and is working with the city.

"We do have a specific role in that as far as making sure the water is safe. As far as the contaminants, whether it's bacteriological or lead or copper, so we're working closely with them.

"This is a long-term play, right. It's going to take a long-term fix."

Jackson businesses, economy suffering

Longtime restaurateur Jeff Good pleaded with residents to return to his restaurants on Wednesday. Two of them remained closed.

In a post to his Facebook page, he said Broad Street Bakery & Cafe had been without any water for the last 15 days.

"What I ask of you all is this.," Goode wrote. "We know your patterns of breakfast eating, coffee and pastry pick up, lunch ordering, afternoon snacking, and dinner pick up have changed since we are shuttered...I fear that some of you may be building a new dining habit since we are not available.

"Please, please return. When we reopen, we will need you more than ever."

David Battaly, center, with MEMA, watches the delivery of pallets of bottled water at New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Maple Street shortly after noon Monday, March 1, 2021. MEMA, Mississippi Army National Guard and members of New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church manning the site, with publicized hours of operation beginning at 10 a.m., could offer hand sanitizer, face masks and non-potable water but no bottled water before the delivery. There were three pallets of water delivered for distribution.
David Battaly, center, with MEMA, watches the delivery of pallets of bottled water at New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Maple Street shortly after noon Monday, March 1, 2021. MEMA, Mississippi Army National Guard and members of New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church manning the site, with publicized hours of operation beginning at 10 a.m., could offer hand sanitizer, face masks and non-potable water but no bottled water before the delivery. There were three pallets of water delivered for distribution.

The lack of water forced local coffee shop barista, Dane Lott, to borrow water from Ridgeland to make coffee every morning last week. Now, she is forced to boil all the water she might need on a stove in the back of the shop before serving to customers. Like many residents and businesses owners in Jackson, water has been restored but water pressure is low.

Godfrey's Jamaican Restaurant in south Jackson was one of about 18,000 locations in Jackson which lost power during the second wave of a winter storm system. It came on top of the citywide water shortage.

The restaurant was forced to close down for eight days, owner Godfrey Morgan said.

He estimated about $60,000 in lost revenue during the closure.

Other business owners are trying to make do and tallying up their losses as the water crisis has a larger effect on the city's economy.

Jeff Rent, president and CEO of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership said business losses are likely widespread.

“I think if you do business in Jackson, you’ve been affected,” Rent said. “It affected our office. We’re in downtown Jackson. We didn’t have working restrooms.”

For businesses already struggling due to COVID-19, the water shortage created an even greater challenge.

“Those with business interruption insurance can file claims, but many of our small businesses may not have that,” Rent said. “This has made what we can call a challenging time almost impossible, especially for businesses that were already on the edge.”

Contributing: Brian Broom, Sarah Haselhorst and Gabriela Szymanowska

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Jackson, Mississippi water crisis: no end in sight weeks later