Helena-West-Helena, Arkansas serves as the county seat for Phillips County and is home to a population of slightly over 12,000 people, predominantly African Americans.
As blistering heat beats down, the city has been dealing with a water crisis — a dire water shortage for three weeks — and meaningful state, and federal aid has remained elusive, leaving the community at points heavily reliant upon bottled water for its daily needs.
The root cause of Helena-West Helena’s water woes lies in its aging infrastructure, with pipes dating back at least 60 years, which have been bursting throughout the city.
Mayor Christopher Franklin recently expressed his concerns in an NBC News interview.
“Some of the problems are about infrastructure being neglected over the years. It’s just been a systemic failure,” Franklin said.
The crisis reached its tipping point on June 25 when a major water line broke, causing the city’s computer operating system that runs the water plant to fail automatically.
As a result, the predominantly Black community endured a grueling 20-hour period without water in scorching temperatures of up to 97 degrees.
Since then, the city has had to cope with a boil water alert as leaks sprouted from various compromised parts of the infrastructure. The alert was lifted earlier this week.
According to NBC News, city officials estimate that the cost of repairing the antiquated piping system ranges from $1 million to $10 million.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a $100,000 loan to help address the leaks in the primary water system, but Franklin and his chief of staff, James Valley, deemed it insufficient to resolve the issue.
Although water service had been partially restored, low pressure and new leaks persist.
Franklin has tirelessly sought aid from state and federal authorities but claims that his pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
“In America, where people have the right to good, quality drinking water, the federal government should be running … to provide that,” he told NBC.
“Instead, there’s no sense of urgency for us. I mean, why would it be? We’re Black. There’s no urgency until they want our vote. And that’s what’s happening here. What else are we left to think?”
The mayor has called upon Arkansas’ two Republican senators, Tom Cotton and John Boozman, to provide a satisfactory response to the crisis.
While Cotton sent an aide to assess the situation, Boozman is scheduled to send one soon.
However, Franklin stressed that what his city truly needs is immediate access to resources and a comprehensive solution, not just visits from representatives.
Acknowledging the assistance provided by entities such as the Arkansas National Guard, the Red Cross, Walmart, and Dollar General in offering support and bottled water, Franklin said he worried that if those organizations are the sole sources of help, the city will face a long, scorching summer.
He and others have questioned why substantive and timely aid has been slow to materialize, citing similar delays experienced in other predominately African-American communities such as Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi.
In his seven months as mayor, Franklin said he has focused on revitalizing the city by demolishing 90 abandoned homes to eliminate blight and attract residents back to the area.
He said he sees this as an opportunity to replace the aging water lines that lie beneath those houses.
However, the water crisis has not been the only challenge for Franklin.
Since defeating a white incumbent in the mayoral race, Franklin said he’s encountered racism, including death threats, property intrusions, and social media attacks.
“I’m not arguing about a football game. I’m arguing about the quality of life for Black people and all the people in this inner city,” said Franklin.
Source: NNPA News Service