JACKSON, Miss. — The water pressure at James Brown’s home in Jackson was so low the faucets barely dripped. He couldn’t cook. He couldn’t bathe. But he still had to work.
The 73-year-old tree-cutter hauled bags of ice into his truck at a gas station on his way to a job Wednesday after several days without water.
“What can I do? I’m just a pawn in a chess game,” he said, on one of multiple trips to and from the store. “All I’ve got to do is just try and live.”
People waited in lines at distribution sites and flooded stores for water to drink, bathe, cook and flush toilets Wednesday in Mississippi’s capital amid the failure of the the city water system after flooding exacerbated longstanding problems in one of two water-treatment plants.
President Joe Biden, who the day before approved an emergency declaration for the state of Mississippi, called Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba to discuss response efforts, including support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Beyond addressing the immediate crisis, Biden said he wants to provide federal support for the longer term effort to rebuild Jackson’s aging water infrastructure, which has been unreliable for years.
Lumumba said Jackson’s water system is troubled by short staffing and “decades of deferred maintenance.” He said the influx of water from torrential rain changed the chemical composition needed for treatment, which slowed the process of pushing water out to customers.
Even before the service disruption, the city’s 150,000 residents had been boiling their drinking water for the past month because officials said it could cause digestive problems.
Brown said Wednesday that he’d stopped at the grocery store to buy four cases of water before picking up the ice. A lifelong resident of Jackson, he said people there have been living without access to consistent water for years — even when there is pressure, residents often have to boil it to drink and cook.
Within the past two years, people have lost pressure entirely. A cold snap in 2021 left tens of thousands of people without running water after pipes froze. Similar problems happened again early this year, on a smaller scale.
“It will get right one day,” he said. “When, I have no idea.”
Like many cities, Jackson faces water system problems it can’t afford to fix. Its tax base has eroded the past few decades as the population decreased — the result of mostly white flight to suburbs that began after public schools integrated in 1970. The city’s population is now more than 80% Black, with about 25% of its residents living in poverty.
Lumumba said last week that fixing Jackson’s water system could cost $200 million, but Tuesday he said the cost could run to “quite possibly the billions of dollars.” Mississippi is receiving $75 million to address water problems as part of a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Bobbie Fairley owns Magic Hand’s Hair design in South Jackson. The 59-year-old, who has lived in Jackson her entire life, said she had to cancel five appointments Wednesday because she needs high water pressure to wash chemicals out of hair during treatments.
She’s had to purchase water to shampoo hair to try fit in whatever appointments she can. When clients aren’t coming in, she’s losing money, she said.
“That’s a big burden,” she said. “I can’t afford that. I can’t afford that at all.”
Jackson State University, a historically Black university, had to bring in temporary restrooms for students and was waiting on the delivery of portable showers Wednesday, a spokesperson said.
Shannon Wilson, whose daughter just started her sophomore year at Jackson State, said her daughter’s dorm regained some pressure, but the water coming out is brown. Her daughter left to stay with a friend off campus. But Wilson, who lives in St. Louis, can’t help but worry about her.
“We are feeling helpless. Being over 500 miles away from Jackson, there is nothing I can do but worry,” she said.
Wilson said she’s grateful that she and her husband are able to provide transportation and support for their daughter, but knows many families don’t have the means. She can’t help but think about all the sacrifices parents make to pay tuition and “give their child the opportunity to further their education only to be let down.”
“My heart goes out to the students that are forced to live in those conditions and their families. The issue is much bigger than just JSU and the city of Jackson,” she said. “Where is the governor that was elected to ensure citizens are protected? Somebody needs to answer to this and get it rectified.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency for Jackson’s water system Tuesday. The state will try to help resolve problems by hiring contractors to work at the treatment plant, which was operating at diminished capacity with backup pumps after the main pumps failed “some time ago,” Reeves said.
(This Associated Press story is by Michael Goldberg and Leah Willingham. Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.)