Around 180,000 people in and around Jackson, Miss., are experiencing a massive breakdown of the city’s water system. The city’s pipes are either running dry or producing water that’s likely contaminated, leaving Jackson without any clean water. Jackson has been plagued with crumbling water infrastructure for decades, and the city first began receiving warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s, saying that the system needed repairs and improvements to avoid health hazards. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency on Aug. 30, and are working with Mayor Chokwe Lumumba to restore water to the city and look at long-term solutions for the long-term water crisis.
“It’s just kind of a Jackson joke. We always have a boil-water notice and there’s always something wrong with the treatment center,” Anna Lois Callen, a Jackson resident, tells TIME. “There’s even a gift shop in one of our art districts that sells mugs that say, ‘Jackson, Mississippi: Boil-Water Notice,’” Callen and other Jacksonians shared with us via interview what their lives are like now, detailing how this clean water shortage has impacted the community:
Anna Lois Callen
Anna Lois Callen is an artist who’s lived in Jackson since 2011. Callen and her friends have been collecting photos of their tap water at its worst for the past six years, where the water ranges from a light beige to a deep brown. She explains that everyone she knows has experienced dirty water running from their tap before in the city, but the current severity and how long it’s lasting is new.
“It feels so gross to be washing our hair in this. It’s like well, I can either wash my hair in this water or try a sponge bath with a bottle of water, which isn’t really a cleaner feeling either,” Callen says.
The Mississippi Health Department has warned people in Jackson not to drink, brush their teeth, wash dishes, or cook with the water before boiling it because of the health risks.
“Is it easier to open up a package and eat something or to wash my vegetables with water bottles or water that I had to boil? It absolutely changes convenience during this time,” Callen says.
Callen says a major frustration in Jackson that’s spanned years is the water billing system. Under boil-water notices, Jacksonians continue to pay the city for water. “I’ve never seen my bill reflect the fact that we were under boil-water notices. I have often gone months without receiving a water bill and then received an $800 water bill,” Callen says. “I may or may not have had drinkable water during that bill.”
The city’s Water Sewer Business Administration (WSBA) provides water to the city and handles billing. WSBA has not responded to TIME’s request for comment.
Mutual aid groups and government agencies have been organizing bottled water distribution sites around the city, but some of these locations require a long wait or they run out quickly.
“On Saturday, I was driving by the [Jackson State University] campus, and there was a huge line that was wrapped for miles around the campus. I was trying to figure out what was going on,” Callen says, recounting that she spent 20 minutes in traffic. “The line that was wrapped around the campus was all just trying to get water.”
Callen says that even people who are fortunate to have water coming out of their faucets are uncertain if it’ll stay that way. “You’re just storing buckets of water all around your house, not knowing whether tomorrow you’ll even have water that you can boil,” Callen says. “We don’t have the resources to live to the level of dignity that we would hope to have and expect to feel human.”
MiQueria Thompson says that her apartment had already been poorly maintained, but when the Pearl River flooded last week, water leaked into the building and refused to drain, leaving her apartment covered in mold.
“I started contacting the office management but they’re not doing anything about it,” Thompson tells TIME. “I don’t have the funds to even try to be moving right now. I’m a single mom of four, so you know, I just have to wait.”
Thompson says that it was bad before but now when they run the tap, “it’s brown.” She talks about a few of the many challenges she’s facing taking care of young children without clean water.
“We have to use bottles of water or jugs of water to flush the toilet. To wash my baby bottles I have to boil water,” Thompson says. “When I give them a bath I have to boil the water. My kids are kids. When they’re in the tub they put their heads in, you know.”
Jackson public school buildings have been closed and they’ve switched to virtual learning until the water pressure is restored. Many daycares and preschools have also shut down, impacting parents’ abilities to go to work, and in Thompson’s case, having to trek to water distribution sites with her kids.
“I went to Walmart yesterday and the line, it was outrageous. It was too hot out there for me and my baby to sit in line,” Thompson says. “I went out to another place, but by the time I got there, they were out of water.”
Feeding their children is a major struggle for some parents in Jackson right now. Jackson public schools are offering a pick-up option for breakfast and lunch, though without school buses available to take their kids and drop them off, getting these meals isn’t feasible for all parents. Access to these meals is especially important for recipients of free or reduced meal programs, who may not have other options. Nearly 25% of people in Jackson live below the poverty line.
“There’s just certain stuff I don’t cook because I’m scared even washing dishes in this water,” Thompson says about feeding her kids.
Thompson also recounts what it’s been like feeding her 2-month-old son, who can only have a certain type of powdered infant formula. Baby formulas are generally mixed with water, but Thompson has had to buy milk to mix the formula with instead.
Amanda Caver, one of the owners of Godfrey’s, a soul-food restaurant in Jackson, tells TIME what it’s like running a business amid the water crisis.
“With the additional expenses that customers are having to endure, we can understand and we can relate because the amount of bottled water and jugs of water that we have to purchase, as well as transporting it between locations has become quite taxing budget-wise,” Caver tells TIME. “Sales are down tremendously because of that. We are aware that we’re all in crisis together.”
Caver explains that Godfrey’s has been relatively lucky since they still have water pressure in the building and their second location in Flowood–an affluent suburb in the Jackson metropolitan area–has been able to help provide clean water, so they haven’t had to close. Restaurants and other establishments in the service and hospitality sector have been hit hard by the crisis and many have not been so fortunate. Caver notes how difficult it would have been if Godfrey’s was put in that position and also how as an employer it’s especially important to accommodate the staff’s needs right now.
“That would have been devastating. Our employees rely on us for consistent income and for us to be able to provide that for them to support themselves and their families,” Caver says. “We are a bit more understanding, especially as employees are later coming to work because of them having to either boil water or do things differently in order to get themselves and their families ready.”
Caver says that everyone is suffering in some way, and this will be a bigger problem the longer it goes on. “Whether it’s a small business or large business, sales are down because our customer base is hurting. They need the essentials and water is one of those essentials. For some businesses who are not financially (well-)positioned, I do expect that the next few months are going to be really rough for them,” Caver says.
For generations, Jacksonians have felt betrayed by officials and greater society for withholding much-needed support and compassion for a decades-long crisis.The issue is just now beginning to garner attention from outsiders, in the state and national governments, but some residents, who could afford to do so, have already left. For others, that’s not an option.
“The capital city’s legacy is people making enough money to be able to ciao (leave), so the people who are still here are becoming fewer and fewer that are still fighting this battle,” Callen says. “I bought a house here because I want my tax dollars to help Jackson, help rebuild the infrastructure, but because it’s so bad, I know so many people and I sympathize with so many people, who feel like they have to leave.”
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