Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis brings to light long-standing problems in city

After more than two weeks without clean running water, Katasha Johnson saw a slow trickle dribbling down a faucet in her home on the west side of Jackson, Mississippi, on Tuesday.

But the brown drip didn’t feel like a reprieve for Johnson, 38, who lost water after back-to-back winter storms slammed the city and its century-old water infrastructure last month.

“It’s not enough to do anything with, and it doesn’t even look safe,” said Johnson, the mother of children ages 9, 6 and 3.

Instead, Johnson and her fiancé are using melted snow and collected rainwater stored in four large coolers to flush the toilet. To clean dishes and hands, Johnson boils pots of water taken from a bathtub that was pre-filled when water was available.

“It has been absolutely horrible to live like this,” she said.

Jackson has entered the third week of a crisis that has left much of the city without water since freezing temperatures devastated much of the South. Community leaders say that the disaster isn’t a one-off and that it has brought to light long-simmering issues of systemic breakdown and neglect.

Weeks after the storm, the city continues to be under a boil water notice, and residents are being urged to conserve water and lower consumption as much as possible. Residents have been lining up at several sites that distribute non-potable water or water for flushing throughout the city. Many say they have been turned away after supplies ran out.

Jackson reported 96 main water breaks and leaks, 53 of which have been repaired, the mayor’s office said a statement.

“Today we saw pressure stay around 83 to 85 psi. This is good, but ultimately, we need to get to 90 psi and stay there consistently in order for water to be restored to everyone. This is an old system and we are taking it day by day as it recharges itself,” the statement said.

More than half of the city’s schools are closed because of the water crisis; only 19 of nearly 50 public schools have reopened.

While it’s still unclear how many residents are out of water, community leaders, like state Rep. Ronnie Crudup, say it’s at least 40,000.

Crudup has had no water for 16 days. He lives with his wife and two grandchildren, ages 9 and 10, in the hardest-hit part of the city, in South Jackson.

“We can’t bathe, we can’t cook food, we can’t wash dishes, we can’t do laundry. It’s tremendously difficult,” he said.

Crudup said that the city’s infrastructure was already frail and that the crisis has highlighted how easily it can break.

“Infrastructure has been a historic problem, and for years each administration kept kicking that can down the road,” he said. “This is a longtime issue, but now we’re paying a severe price for that neglect.”

Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable and co-founder of the Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative, a local nonprofit organization, said the water crisis has highlighted a slew of underlying issues long afflicting the community.

“This was a breakdown of a system that was supposed to be in place for the safety of our citizens,” she said. “This water crisis has really exacerbated a system that has never really worked for poor folks, Black folks, seniors, for so many people.”

Jackson’s population is more than 80 percent Black.

Welchlin said the government hasn’t invested in Jackson’s infrastructure for a very long time.

“All of this is interconnected. Because of the water crisis, some families lost a week of pay because many people couldn’t work. Teachers couldn’t teach because they don’t have internet connection. They don’t have power. Many people were unable to provide, so this is a much larger issue than a lot of people might see,” she said.

Welchlin and Crudup said state and federal intervention is necessary to fully address not just infrastructure but all of the underlying issues connected to the crisis.

In the interim, several groups have stepped up to aid community members. The Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative and other local organizations have coordinated supplies, water and services for residents in need. They have donated gift cards for food and bills and arranged for water trucks, and they have been dropping off cases of bottled water.

But many residents have also had to dip into their own pockets. Kehinde Gaynor, 42, has had to rent three hotel rooms in the last two weeks to give his wife and three children a place with safe water to bathe and wash.

Many residents have had to do that, he said, and the expenses have added up very quickly.

“Not having water isn’t new to us. We’ve lost it before, but never as long as this,” he said. “It’s affecting every part of our life, and to me it feels like we’re the next Flint, Michigan.”