Frustrated residents in Mississippi’s state capital faced a second day without drinking water and the prospect of long lines for bottled water handouts after a neglected treatment plant failed this week.
Many businesses were shuttered again in the city of Jackson, while local schools and Jackson State University, a historically Black college, resumed classes online. Store shelves once packed with bottled water stood empty as residents waited for cases of water to be distributed later in the day.
“Jackson is in a water crisis and we do not trust what water we get to even bathe in,” said Cassandra Welchlin, 49, a social worker. She said her family of five was fortunate because they could shower at her sister’s place outside the city.
As a stop-gap measure to restore pressure to the water system, crews scrambled to install a temporary pump at the O.B. Curtis plant, which stopped operating on Monday and left the city of about 180,000 people without running water.
The plant, long plagued by inadequate staffing and maintenance problems, broke down from complications after a weekend of heavy rain and flooding, angering residents of a city that is about 80% African-American.
Mayor Chokwe Lumumba told CNN he expected water to be restored to residents by the end of the week.
Governor Tate Reeves has declared a state of emergency for Jackson and surrounding areas and called up the state National Guard to assist in efforts to bring relief to the city.
Late on Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s administration approved an emergency declaration and ordered federal assistance to supplement the state’s response. The Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will coordinate all disaster relief efforts in the state, the White House said.
In addition to bottled drinking water distributed at several sites, the state trucked in 10 tractor-trailers of non-potable water and was expecting another 108 trucks in the coming days, Stephen McCraney, the state emergency management director, told reporters. The non-potable supplies are intended for flushing toilets and washing clothes.
The city is likely to see some relief with the installation of the temporary pump which would boost the plant’s capacity, which had already been boosted to 40% by an emergency team.
Even so, the system was still short of sufficient water pressure to guarantee service citywide.
Even before the crisis, the city had been under a boil water notice for the past month due to “elevated turbidity levels,” which makes the water appear cloudy. That followed a string of disruptions to the city’s water supply in recent years caused by high lead levels, bacterial contamination and storm damage.
Reeves, a Republican, has alleged that the water treatment plant suffered from years of city mismanagement, while Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has accused the state of failing to support efforts to maintain and update the plant.
Each side had been offered differing accounts of why the treatment plant failed, though they appeared to agree on significant facts by Tuesday afternoon.
The governor, who previously blamed pump failures, conceded that a scenario earlier presented by the mayor was correct: that floodwaters had entered the plant and altered the chemistry of the water. That rendered the existing treatment inadequate, forcing the plant to shut down.
Many Jackson residents say that the lack of investment in Jackson’s water infrastructure reflected the racial makeup of the city, which is more than 80% Black or African American, according to U.S. Census data.
“Extreme racist politics are being put before the people. It’s time that we put that to the side,” said Danyelle Holmes, a Jackson resident and social justice organizer.