State and federal officials prepare response to water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi


JACKSON, Mississippi — Governor Tate Reeves on Thursday deployed 600 National Guard troops to mass water distribution sites in Mississippi’s capital as workers struggled to repair pumps at the beleaguered plant that left many people without reliable running water for weeks, with no end in sight.

State officials opened seven mass water distribution sites manned from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. by National Guard troops, supplementing sites across the city run by fire stations, churches and organizations non-profit. Towns in the area also trucked in water to help Jackson.

By afternoon, cars had lined up at venues across the state, including at the state’s fairgrounds, where officials told reporters the locations would be stocked by 108 trucks for the next days, enough water for the city’s 150,000 inhabitants, plus 30,000 non-workers in the city.

“To everyone in the city: I know you are facing a deeply unfair situation,” Reeves said, flanked by state officials and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar. Lumumba. “It’s frustrating, it’s wrong and it needs to be fixed.”

He touted some progress: On Thursday, one of the plant’s two broken pumps had been replaced with an emergency rental pump, doubling the water pressure from the previous day, Reeves said. The second pump was due for repair early next week, although it was unclear when water service would be restored throughout the city, he said.

Reeves declared a state of emergency Monday night after Pearl River flooding worsened problems at one of the city’s two water treatment plants. The city has been on a boil water advisory since late July due to what the state calls quality issues, and the water treatment plant has been plagued with issues these years, including staff shortages, failed environmental inspections, a freeze and a fire.

On Tuesday, President Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state and called Lumumba on Wednesday to discuss response efforts, including support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency environment and the Army Corps of Engineers.

An aide said Biden had expressed a desire to resolve the crisis and help rebuild Jackson’s water infrastructure.

Lumumba said Vice President Harris also contacted him, while FEMA Administrator Dana Criswell spoke with Reeves and was scheduled to visit Jackson on Friday. FEMA officials and EPA experts were also on the ground coordinating with state teams, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

“We are focusing our efforts on immediate needs to make sure there is clean water for those who need it,” FEMA spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg. tweeted.

Both Reeves, a Republican, and Lumumba, a Democrat, have come under fire for letting the city’s infrastructure problems languish, criticism reflected in scathing comments online from residents during Thursday’s live briefing. But Reeves dismissed accusations of partisanship and the couple cited the need to work together.

“My representation here is a symbol of the unity that is coming together, a symbol of the coalition working hand in hand to make sure we stay focused on the people of Jackson,” Lumumba said, noting that “ as the Governor said, there may come a time when certain other questions arise.

Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” ahead of the briefing, Lumumba said the city had been warning about problems for three years, saying “it’s not a question of whether the systems will fail, but when. “.

“It has certainly been an accumulation of challenges and disinvestments over the years, over three decades. …” he said. “We are glad to have the state on board. We have gone it alone for far too long. He said state and federal help would be needed, calling the system broken water supply “a problem the city can’t fix,” given that repairs would cost an estimated $2 billion.

Historically, Jackson’s water issues have disproportionately affected the city’s low-income black communities, said LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, co-founders of local advocacy group Black Voters Matter.

“At the root of this crisis is systemic racism and the willful neglect of local and state governments to redirect infrastructure funds that could have helped solve this problem years ago,” they said in a statement. statement, noting that the city is about 83% black.

“This crisis is not an isolated event,” they wrote, citing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which has spawned criminal investigations, official resignations and a $641 million class action settlement. dollars this year.

Councilman Aaron Banks, who represented the predominantly black, low-income South Side of Jackson for six years, said he was disproportionately affected by the disruptions in the water service, for which he blamed not only race but also class. Banks toured the water plant Thursday and said he was encouraged to see federal experts arriving to help.

“We are praying that one of the pumps that are currently working will not fail because there is no backup pump,” he said. “At the moment, there is a good flow. The thing is, you have a lot of aging equipment and that contributes to failure, especially when the system has been under so much stress.

He feared that the rains forecast for the next few days could cause the Pearl River to swell again and cause further flooding.

Living in “Deep South Jackson,” he said, he hasn’t gone a week in the past two years without a water break. He recently showered at his mother’s house nearby, which has well water.

“For us, unfortunately, it’s becoming a norm,” Banks said.

City water pressure and quality remained unreliable throughout the city on Thursday, from the South Side to the Tony Fondren neighborhood north of downtown and subsidized high-rise housing for the elderly and disabled. Schools in Jackson have held classes online as they have since Tuesday, some restaurants have closed and portable restrooms have appeared in front of the Capitol and Jackson State University.

Across the city, nonprofit groups such as the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, which is made up of more than 30 organizations in the state, have set up water distribution centers in the middle of affected neighborhoods. The long lines at these centers sometimes stretch for almost a mile.

Sarah Stripp, executive director of the nonprofit Springboard to Opportunities, attempted to provide water to 700 families the group works with in federally subsidized housing.

“It’s been chaos,” she said. “The water pressure varies depending on where people are in the city. There have been ups and downs in all the communities where we work. There have been times when it is clear, sometimes it turns brown.

She said elderly residents struggled to find transportation to water distribution sites. And his group is struggling to find water suppliers in and out of state.

“Yesterday the closest we could find was Memphis,” she said. The group eventually paid $2,000 to truck in water from Alabama, she said, and still didn’t know how much would arrive on Friday.

Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, said grassroots organizations are struggling to meet the immense need. People started queuing at one of the group’s distribution sites two hours before the scheduled opening on Thursday morning.

“It’s unbearable,” said Veronica Jackson, 39, a mother of two boys, ages 6 and 14. “We pay $2 a gallon for water, and that’s if you can even find it.”

But Jackson feels lucky. Her youngest son’s private school has remained open and she can leave her 14-year-old at home to follow Zoom lessons on her own while she works. She says it’s not ideal, but she needs to keep working, in part to keep affording water.

“I paid $300 to $400 a month in water bills and you can’t even use the water half the time,” she said.

Prior to Thursday, the governor and mayor had held separate daily press conferences to update residents on the crisis, which Jessica Carter, organizing director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, highlights the heart of the problem facing residents of Jackson.

“The governor speaks of unity and solidarity in all of his speeches,” Carter said. “But it looks like they can’t even be in the same room.”

Carter, who moved to Jackson three years ago, said the first thing everyone tells her is not to drink the water without filtering it first. Now she even worries about using it to bathe her 2-year-old daughter.

“I’ve been very concerned about giving my daughter a bath,” she said. “It’s bath time, she’s a kid, she likes to put stuff in her mouth during bath time, so I have to be extra careful.”

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