The maritime devastation of Mississippi’s capital has been decades in the making

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — For at least the third time in a dozen years, portable toilets are parked outside the ornate Mississippi State Capitol because Jackson’s water system is in crisis.

The big “Gotta Go” trailer is just one example of the city’s desperation. Many homes, businesses and government offices had little or no running water this week, forcing people to wait in long lines to drink bottled water or flush toilets.

The scenes show the near-collapse of a water supply system that residents could not trust even at the best of times. The failure to provide such a basic service reflects decades of government dysfunction, population change and decaying infrastructure. It has also fueled a political battle in which largely GOP state lawmakers have shown little interest in helping a predominantly black city run by Democrats.

“We are on a budget and have to go buy water all the time. All the time,” said Mary Huard, whose child had to switch to online school because in-person classes were cut short due to low water pressure.

Even before the pressure dropped, Jackson’s system was fragile, and officials had warned for years that widespread loss of service was possible. A cold snap in 2021 froze pipes and left tens of thousands of people without running water. Similar problems occurred again earlier this year, on a smaller scale.

Broken water and sewer pipes are also common in Mississippi’s largest city. The Environmental Protection Agency told Jackson months ago that the water system violates the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The crisis deepened after heavy rain last week flooded the Pearl River and exacerbated problems at the main water treatment plant over the weekend.

Water lines formed at churches, fire stations, community centers and outside large stores.

Outside a high school, volunteers used a pump attached to a tanker truck to hand out water to people who showed up with whatever empty containers they could find. A woman brought a truck bed full of empty paint buckets. A school maintenance worker pulled a garbage can with water falling over the side.

When Gov. Tate Reeves and President Joe Biden declared the state of emergency, residents had already been advised for a month to boil their water before doing everything from brushing teeth to boiling pasta.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said fixing the problems could cost billions of dollars – far beyond Jackson’s ability to pay. That ability has been limited by the shrinking tax base resulting from white flight, which began about a decade after public school integration in 1970.

The population peaked in 1980 at nearly 203,000. It currently stands at around 150,000, with around 25% of residents living in poverty.

Over the past half century, Jackson’s racial makeup has also changed. Once majority white, it is now more than 80% black. The suburbs surrounding Jackson are generally whiter and more affluent and have newer infrastructure.

Mississippi’s mostly white, Republican-dominated Legislature has been reluctant to offer help, even as the problems have disrupted daily life at the Capitol, where lawmakers work for at least a few months each year.

The Democratic mayor and Republican governor rarely speak to each other. And when Reeves held a press conference on Monday to declare a state of emergency, Lumumba was nowhere to be seen. Reeves said he did not call the mayor.

They held separate press conferences again on Tuesday and Wednesday, although Lumumba insisted they are working as a team. By Thursday, the two were finally seen together.

“Right now, what we’re focusing on is the operational unity that we have,” Lumumba said as he stood next to Reeves. “Operational unity means we focus more on our common goals and objectives than on any differences we may uncover at some point.”

Reeves often criticizes Jackson for its crime rate and has said the city’s water problems stem from poor management.

“I know that the state Department of Health team as well as the EPA have been working tirelessly since 2016 trying to get the city to comply with the mandates that have been put in place. They were generally unsuccessful at that,” Reeves said Monday.

Cecil Brown is a Democrat who represented part of Jackson in the Mississippi House for 16 years before serving on the state Public Service Commission. He urged city, state and congressional leaders to work together.

“If you don’t like each other, that’s okay, let’s say, ‘If we can’t work together, let’s get our staff together,'” Brown said in an interview Thursday.

The governor has blocked some efforts to alleviate water problems. After the city hired a private contractor to handle water billing, some customers went months without receiving bills, while others skipped payments.

In 2020, Reeves vetoed legislation that would have allowed Jackson to forgive at least a portion of unpaid water bills for poor people.

Lumumba has complained that Mississippi, a state with a nearly 40 percent black population, is often overlooked by national Democrats and taken for granted by Republicans.

Criticism of the Jackson water disaster is not strictly partisan.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes most of Jackson, said in mid-August that Jackson leaders had not provided concrete proposals for improvements.

“The fathers and mothers of the city should step up, create this plan that we can start selling from Jackson to Washington,” Thompson told WJTV.

An infrastructure bill signed last year by Biden is designed to address problems like Jackson’s, but it’s unclear how much of that money Mississippi’s capital will receive.

At the same time, Mississippi is cutting taxes. This year, Reeves signed the largest tax cut in the state, which will reduce revenue by about $185 million in the first year and $525 million in the final year.

The governor argued that the income tax cut would “lead to more wealth for all Mississippians,” even as one of the nation’s poorest states struggles to support schools and rural hospitals.

Reeves has not said whether he will call a special session of the Legislature before January to consider aid for Jackson. Any proposals would face opposition from some Republicans who say the state should not bail out Jackson from his predicament.

But Republican Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula, along the Gulf Coast, said he was willing to help if the help included an accountability plan.

“The state ‘saving’ the city after decades of neglect and failed leadership violates my sense of responsibility and my conservative principles.” Wiggins wrote on Twitter. He added that he remembers the government assistance after Hurricane Katrina.

“At the end of the day, this is about the safety of the citizens of Jackson and its economic viability,” Wiggins said.

Even when Jackson hasn’t been alerted to the boiling water, Sharon Epps said she buys bottled water for her family because she doesn’t trust tap water. She said her landlord replaced a broken line that was spewing raw sewage into the backyard.

“When you can’t use the bathroom the way you want, and it’s floating in your backyard, that’s the saddest part of it. And then you can’t sit in the backyard because it smells so bad,” Epps said. “It’s a disaster, baby.”

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Associated Press writer Michael Goldberg contributed to this report. Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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