Mississippi water crisis is ‘nth degree racism’, locals say

The water crisis that has left Jackson, Mississippi residents struggling to wash, cook and flush the toilet has been going on for decades.

For years, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has sought financial assistance from the state government to meet the city’s infrastructure needs. Local organizers, rather than waiting for the government, developed their own networks to distribute bottled water and help neighbors pay for hotel rooms and food.

A community organization, the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, formed months ago in response to ongoing water infrastructure issues. When an aging water treatment plant broke down earlier this week, resulting in low or no water pressure for more than 160,000 residents of the capital, the coalition was ready to mobilize resources for residents.

But Jacksonians’ local efforts are short-term and dependent on donations and volunteers.

“We’re putting bandages on the gunshot wounds to try to keep the pressure on until someone more trained with better care comes along,” said Mac Epps, director of Mississippi MOVE, a coalition of health groups. local community action.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday provided a long-awaited response to the crisis, declaring a state of emergency that allowed the state Health Department and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to oversee repairs. raw water pumps and to conclude a contract to bring in personnel. operate the sewage treatment plant. He also asked for help from the Biden administration, which provided emergency protective measures and 75% of federal funding for 90 days.

The crisis in Jackson underscores a growing risk for black communities in the South who are burdened by failing water systems and frequent boil water advisories. Outside of California, the majority of the country’s failing water systems are scattered in rural areas of Midwestern and Southern states such as Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi – all of which have a growing black population and expected to be among the worst hitting locations for future storms and extreme heat.

Deteriorating water infrastructure in Jackson has often resulted in school closures, hospital closures, and life-threatening issues for infants and the elderly. The problem has been compounded during severe weather events that are increasingly common in the South.

Last year, when thousands of Jackson residents were left without water for weeks, Reeves blamed aging infrastructure, saying the problem dated back to “50 years of neglect and ignoring the challenges of drains and system”. Since his declaration, the Republican-dominated Legislature has given little support to the city.

A history of neglect

The estimated price to repair Jackson’s water system is $1 billion. Yet the entire state of Mississippi received just $429 million for water repairs in the latest round of funding made available through the bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

Prior to the Infrastructure Act, federal funding for water infrastructure had declined nearly 80% since the 1970s, leaving city water systems across the country to target residents with higher tariffs and aggressive water policies. judgment and privilege, which have a disproportionate impact on poor black residents.

During last year’s water crisis, Reeves said publicly that the city should first seek to raise money from customers – most of whom are black and about 25% of whom live in poverty – rather than counting on help from the state and federal government.

“It’s racism to the umpteenth degree. The government can say there’s not enough money here to fix it, but at the end of the day, people don’t care,” said Brooke Floyd, Jackson People’s Assembly coordinator and member of the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition “They care about being able to flush the toilet, turn on the water, and drink something. We’re not able to do that.”

Much of Jackson’s water outages have been attributed to a general disinvestment in the city, exacerbated by a shrinking population and tax base. While much of this exodus has been driven by white flight to surrounding affluent suburbs, Jackson is also one of 13 major U.S. metropolitan areas to have lost black residents since 2010, according to an analysis. of Capital B.

In 2021, the city spent more than 200 days under a boil water advisory. The problem has reached such intense levels that popular souvenir t-shirts include the phrase “Welcome to Boil Water Alert, Mississippi”. Most wastewater treatment plants are designed for an average lifespan of around 40 years; one of Jackson’s main factories is over 100 years old.

As Jackson’s water issues returned to the national conversation, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency called out the city for failing to act on an agreed-upon water revitalization plan. In particular, EPA officials noted, the city has not hired new water operations personnel and taken the next steps in implementing a water plan. alternative to fix its old and obsolete systems.

To address the question of staffing, Lumumba told a press briefing on August 30 that the city has 10 people in training to become Class A operators, and that the city’s human resources division contacted other counties to find candidates. For a graduate person, it takes two years to get certified, while a non-graduate person can take up to six years to get certified, he added.

“We’ve seen people come in and be trained and leave in the middle of the process,” Lumumba said. “We are looking to bring in retired employees who can work a maximum of 20 hours during the prescribed period without violating their retirement protocol or jeopardizing their retirement.”

A looming climate crisis

Jackson’s crumbling water treatment system is particularly vulnerable to environmental contaminants and weather events. Large parts of the state get some of their water from the Mississippi River, which has been contaminated with sewage, agricultural runoff and fertilizer for years. And heavy downpours, like the one the city experienced on Monday, were already overflowing water treatment operations.

Mississippi faces some of the nation’s most severe threats from extreme heat and coastal flooding. Today, Mississippi averages 25 extreme heat days per year, but by 2050 the state is expected to see that rate quadruple as the heat will exceed dangerous levels for a third of the year. Coupled with an aging and poorly insulated housing stock, the lack of access to water will lead to deadly consequences during these days.

More than 80% of Jackson’s census tracts are considered “disadvantaged” in terms of economic and climate-related injustices, according to a White House database. Jackson’s communities have some of the highest rates of asthma and diabetes in the nation. Studies have identified the quality of drinking water and the compounds found in drinking water as major environmental risk factors for the development of diabetes. According to the White House database, the average resident of the city’s south side has a life expectancy of less than 95% of the country.

For Epps with Mississippi MOVE, his biggest fear is losing more residents to the government’s slow response. White House analysis found parts of Jackson’s south and west sides have some of the highest expected population loss rates in the nation, which estimates the number of deaths and injuries resulting from the aftermath of natural disasters. and severe weather events every year.

“We are going to lose lives. People don’t have a lot of, I don’t mean they don’t fight because our people are very resilient, but they’ve been hit by a lot of consecutive things – natural disasters, pandemic and a failing healthcare system said Epps. “They depend on us.”

This story was originally published on August 31, 2022 by Capital B News.

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