Jackson, Mississippi, residents struggle with basic needs as water crisis disrupts life

May Francis (Fran) Bridges in Jackson, Mississippi on Sept. 22.

Emily Kask for NPR

Retired Fran Bridges helps run a bottled water distribution network in West Jackson.

“We tried to find vulnerable people who have no means of transport, people who are too fragile and too old to go out to fetch water,” she says.

For more than two months now, she has been trying to connect donated supplies to people in need. That’s how long Jackson’s last boil water advisory lasted.

The town had no running water even to flush the toilet for an entire week last month. Its water treatment system broke down when flooding exacerbated long-standing problems. By then, nearly 180,000 water customers had already been on boil water advisories for weeks. The state stepped in to make emergency repairs and lifted that order on September 15.

Since then, there have been new problems – a chlorine leak at a sewage treatment plant and broken water pipes. There are also concerns about possible lead contamination. The the Ministry of Health still insists pregnant women and young children to use bottled or filtered water.

Councilman Vernon Hartley brings water to Christine Webb in Jackson, Mississippi on September 22, 2022.

Councilman Vernon Hartley brings water to Christine Webb in Jackson, Mississippi on September 22, 2022.

Emily Kask for NPR

A traumatic situation

Bridges says people still don’t trust what comes out of their taps and that has consequences.

“In all the homes we go to in Jackson, you have to realize that people have been traumatized,” Bridges says. “And you just have everyone almost in a daze.”

Bridges is vice president of the Pecan Tree Park neighborhood association and has helped its councilman, Vernon Hartley, identify who needs help. A giant map of his neighborhood is spread out on a table.

“These little markers mean one thing – drop locations,” he says, pointing to sticky notes displayed around the map. “When clean water can’t come out of the tap, we have to bring it to them.”

One sweltering afternoon, he drives off in his car with loaded water in the trunk.

Councilman Vernon Hartley poses for a portrait at his home in Jackson.

Councilman Vernon Hartley poses for a portrait at his home in Jackson.

Emily Kask for NPR

Locals don’t trust water

“Citizens need to trust that we are doing the right thing with our water and that we are not there yet,” admits Hartley.

Hartley says her district is a largely underserved community and many don’t have the resources to wait in drive-thru lines at water delivery sites.

“A lot of these people have battered cars, broken down cars,” he says. “They may only have a little gas and maybe they’re trying to save that gas to get to work.”

He sees Christine Webb, 82, sitting on her porch doing some needlework, and pulls into her driveway with a crate of water. She is grateful.

“It’s pretty hard for me but I’m getting through it,” she told him.

Councilman Vernon Hartley brings water to Christine Webb in Jackson.

Councilman Vernon Hartley brings water to Christine Webb in Jackson.

Emily Kask for NPR

Webb says she sometimes forgets and uses tap water for cooking, but tries to get used to using bottled water.

You cannot function properly without your water.

The protracted water crisis has changed the way most households operate. Take for example Kimberly Owens, who lives in the Pecan Tree Park neighborhood.

“Our family is a family of five. I have two sons and a daughter,” she says.

The boys are teenagers and her daughter is a student. Her husband works at a local grocery store and they also help care for her mother, who was recently discharged from hospital after surgery. Owens says water issues are a major disruption.

“You can’t function properly without your water,” she says.

Owens says she’s never really sure what might happen when she turns on the kitchen faucet. She now has enough flow to flush the toilet, but for a while she had installed portable camp toilets for her family. Even though authorities lifted the boil order a few weeks ago, she’s not convinced the water is safe.

Kim Owens poses for a portrait on her porch in Jackson, Miss.

Kim Owens poses for a portrait on her porch in Jackson, Miss.

Emily Kask for NPR

“I’m still a little uncertain about the water,” says Owens. “I won’t cook or drink with this water because I don’t think it’s safe enough.”

So it’s bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, washing faces and in the kitchen. This generates a lot of waste – a large bin is full to bursting with used plastic bottles. To do the dishes, she uses bleach.

Owens says she can’t afford the natural gas bill to use her stove to boil water for five baths a day, so the showers are quick.

“If we’re not supposed to drink it, why should we wash anything in it? Clothes, us, anything? How can we shower if the water isn’t drinkable?” she asks.

Owens says the family gets free water daily from distribution points, but also spends about $50 a week on additional supplies.

That’s on top of her water bill, which she says was $469.

“So we paid for unsafe water, and it’s so unfair.”

“To imagine this happening in an American capital, it’s just unimaginable,” Jackson City Councilman Vernon Hartley said. “One way or another, we have to figure this thing out.”

Councilman Vernon Hartley shows a map of water distribution sites in Jackson's Fifth Ward in Jackson, Mississippi.

Councilman Vernon Hartley shows a map of water distribution sites in Jackson’s Fifth Ward in Jackson, Mississippi.

Emily Kask for NPR

Federal government threatens legal action

He says the mismanagement of Jackson’s water treatment system is the responsibility of local elected officials, but he also blames the state’s lack of investment in Jackson’s infrastructure. He thinks a regional solution will be needed, but it’s an idea Jackson’s mayor has rejected. Hartley welcomes the federal invention.

The EPA and the US Department of Justice are in talks with the city to avoid litigation and develop a court-approved plan to ensure sustainable water service.

I believe we can all agree that these conditions are unacceptable in this United States of America.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said residents of Jackson have not had access to safe, reliable water for decades — a situation he calls a “long-standing injustice.”

“I believe we can all agree that these conditions are unacceptable in this United States of America,” Regan said.

In a letter, the US Department of Justice said state and local officials violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. It cites 300 boil water advisories over the past two years and says there is a substantial danger to human health.

There are also civil lawsuits filed by water customers and a Civil Rights Act Claim with the NAACP against the State of Mississippi for racial discrimination.

May Francis (Fran) Bridges in Jackson, Mississippi.

May Francis (Fran) Bridges in Jackson, Mississippi.

Emily Kask for NPR

Chronic divestment from Jackson’s infrastructure

For Bridges, fixing the water system won’t fix the root of the problem, which she says is a mindset the majority-black city of Jackson deserves no better.

“People cling to the old days when black people were considered a commodity and so they can’t let go of the myth that ‘white people are right, you black people are coming back,'” she says. “So they think they should be the ones making the decisions and they should benefit the poor.”

Bridges says when heads of state block investment in the capitalsteer spending toward predominantly white suburbs, and use federal welfare money to benefit soccer celebritiesit deprives resources of the places where they are most needed.

“You can look at me all you want on how I’ve run my house. But when you deliberately remove bricks, when I’m trying to build, then something is wrong,” Bridges says.

She says the powers needed to understand people should be fairly resourced because, she says, “we are all children of God.”

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