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Jackson, Miss., residents struggle with basic needs as the water crisis disrupts life

May Francis (Fran) Bridges in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 22.
Emily Kask for NPR
May Francis (Fran) Bridges in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 22.

JACKSON, Miss. — Retiree Fran Bridges helps run a bottled water distribution network in west Jackson.

"We've been trying to find vulnerable people who don't have transportation, people who are too frail and elderly to get out to get water," she says.

For more than two months now she's been trying to connect donated supplies to people in need. That's how long Jackson's most recent boil water notice lasted.

The city didn't have any running water, even for flushing toilets for a full week last month. Its water treatment system failed when flooding exacerbated longstanding problems. By then nearly 180,000 water customers had already been under a boil advisory for weeks. The state intervened to make emergency repairs and lifted that order on Sept. 15.

Since there have been new problems – a chlorine leak at a treatment plant, and water line breaks. Concerns also remain about potential lead contamination. The health department still urges pregnant women and young children to use bottled or filtered water.

Councilman Vernon Hartley brings water to Christine Webb in Jackson, Miss., on September 22, 2022.
/ Emily Kask for NPR
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Emily Kask for NPR
Councilman Vernon Hartley brings water to Christine Webb in Jackson, Miss., on September 22, 2022.

A traumatizing situation

Bridges says people still don't trust what's coming from their faucets, and it's taking a toll.

"Any house we go to in Jackson, you have to realize that people have been traumatized," Bridges says. "And you just have everybody almost in a daze."

Bridges is president of the Pecan Tree Park neighborhood association and has been helping her city councilman, Vernon Hartley, identify who needs help. A giant map of his district is spread across a table.

"These little markers mean one thing – drop off locations," he says, pointing to sticky notes posted around the map. "When clean water cannot come out of the tap - we need to get it to them."

On a sweltering afternoon, he sets out in his car with water loaded in the trunk.

Councilman Vernon Hartley poses fora portrait in his home in Jackson.
/ Emily Kask for NPR
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Emily Kask for NPR
Councilman Vernon Hartley poses fora portrait in his home in Jackson.

Residents don't trust the water

"The citizens have to have a sense of trust that we're doing the right thing with our water and we're not there," Hartley acknowledges.

Hartley says his district is a largely underserved community, and many don't have the resources to wait in drive-through lines at water distribution sites.

"A lot of these folks have got beat up cars, broken down cars," he says. "They may have only a little bit of gas and may be trying to save that gas to go to work."

He sees Christine Webb, 82, sitting on her front porch doing needlework, and pulls into her driveway with a case of water. She's thankful.

"It's pretty rough on me but I'm making it," she tells him.

Councilman Vernon Hartley brings water to Christine Webb in Jackson.
/ Emily Kask for NPR
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Emily Kask for NPR
Councilman Vernon Hartley brings water to Christine Webb in Jackson.

Webb says she sometimes forgets and uses the tap water to cook with, but is trying to get accustomed to using bottled water.

You cannot function right without your water.

The prolonged water crisis has changed the way most households operate. Take for instance Kimberly Owens, who lives in the Pecan Tree Park neighborhood.

"Our family is a family of five. I have two sons and a daughter," she says.

The boys are teenagers and her daughter is a college student. Her husband works at a local grocery store and they also help care for her mother, recently released from the hospital after a surgery. Owens says the water problems are a major disruption.

"You cannot function right without your water," she says.

Owens says she's never quite sure what might happen when she turns on the kitchen faucet. She has enough flow now for flushing, but for a while she had set up a portable camp toilet for her family. Even though officials lifted a boil order a couple weeks ago, she's not convinced the water is okay.

Kim Owens poses for a portrait on her front porch in Jackson, Miss.
/ Emily Kask for NPR
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Emily Kask for NPR
Kim Owens poses for a portrait on her front porch in Jackson, Miss.

"I'm still a little iffy about water," Owens says. "I will not be cooking and drinking with this water because I don't feel like it's safe enough."

So it's bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, washing faces, and in the kitchen. That generates a lot of waste – a big trash can is chock full of used plastic bottles. For doing dishes, she uses bleach.

Owens says she can't afford the natural gas bill to use her stove to boil water for five baths a day, so showers are quick.

"If we're not supposed to drink it, why should we be washing anything in it? Clothes, us, anything? How can we shower if the water is unsafe to drink?" she asks.

Owens says the family has been picking up free water at distribution points daily, but is also spending about $50 a week to buy additional supplies.

That's on top of her water bill, which she says was $469.

"So we have been paying for water that is unsafe, and that is so unfair."

"To imagine it that this is happening in a capital city in America, it's just unimaginable," says Jackson councilman Vernon Hartley. "Somehow we need to figure this thing out."

Councilman Vernon Hartley shows a map of water delivery sites in Jackson's Fifth Ward in Jackson, Miss.
/ Emily Kask for NPR
/
Emily Kask for NPR
Councilman Vernon Hartley shows a map of water delivery sites in Jackson's Fifth Ward in Jackson, Miss.

Federal government threatens legal action

He says mismanagement of Jackson's water treatment system is the responsibility of local elected officials, but he also blames a lack of state investment in Jackson's infrastructure. He thinks a regional solution will be necessary but that's an idea Jackson's mayor has rejected. Hartley welcomes federal invention.

EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice are in talks with the city to avoid litigation and devise a court-approved plan to ensure sustainable water service.

These conditions I believe we can all agree are unacceptable in these United States of America.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan says the people of Jackson have been without access to safe and reliable water for decades – a situation he calls a "longstanding injustice."

"These conditions I believe we can all agree are unacceptable in these United States of America," Regan says.

In a letter, the U.S. Justice Department said state and local authorities have violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. It cites 300 boil water notices in the last two years and says there's substantial endangerment to human health.

There are also civil lawsuits brought by water customers and a Civil Rights Act claim from NAACP against the state of Mississippi alleging racial discrimination.

May Francis (Fran) Bridges in Jackson, Miss.
/ Emily Kask for NPR
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Emily Kask for NPR
May Francis (Fran) Bridges in Jackson, Miss.

Chronic disinvestment in Jackson's infrastructure

For community activist Fran Bridges, fixing the water system won't solve the root of the problem which she thinks is a mindset that the majority Black city of Jackson doesn't deserve better.

"People hold on to the old days where Black people were seen as a commodity and so they can't let go of the myth that 'white is right, you Black, you get back,'" she says. "So they think they're the ones who should make the decisions and they should benefit from the poor."

Bridges says when state leaders block investment in the capital city, steer spending to majority white suburbs, and use federal welfare dollars to benefit football celebrities, it deprives resources from the places they're needed most.

"You can look at me all you want to about how I managed my house. But when you were deliberately taking bricks out, when I'm trying to build up, then something is wrong," Bridges says.

She says the powers that be need to understand people should have equitable resources because, she says, "We are all God's children."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.