How Jackson, Miss., Residents Are Living Without Clean Water
round 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’s water infrastructure has been in decline for many decades. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency first warned Jackson about its need to repair and improve it. Mississippi governor. Tate Reeves & President Joe Biden declared the state of emergency Aug. 30 and work with Mayor Chokwe Lumumba on restoration and long-term strategies to address the 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 Callan, 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,’” Callan 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 Callan
Anna Lois Callan is an artist who’s lived in Jackson since 2011. Callan has been taking photos with her friends of the worst tap water for six years. The water is a range from light brown to 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.
An empty jar of tap water was collected in Jackson, Miss., on Aug. 29, 2022.
Anna Lois Callan provided the photo
“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,” Callan says.
The Mississippi Health Department has warned peopleJackson is advised to not drink, wash their dishes or boil the water.
“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,” Callan says.
Callan says a major frustration in Jackson that’s spanned years is the water billing system. Jacksonians still have to pay water bills despite being served with boil-water notices. “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,” Callan 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.
There have been several bottled water distribution locations set up by government agencies and mutual aid groups in the area. However, they can be slow to open or require long waiting times.
“On Saturday, I was driving by the [Jackson State University]Campus, there was a long line running for miles. I was trying to figure out what was going on,” Callan says, recounting that she spent 20 minutes in traffic. “The line that was wrapped around the campus was all just trying to get water.”
Callan 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,” Callan 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.”
The photo is more than 2 years old and was taken February 23, 2020 in Jackson Miss.
Anna Lois Callan provided the photo
MiQueria Thompson claims that she had been neglecting her apartment for some time. However, when the Pearl River burst into her building last week, the water poured in and refused to drain. Her apartment was left covered with 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 children are just 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.”
Jackson parents are having a difficult time feeding their kids. 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. These meals are especially valuable for those who receive reduced- or free meal program benefits. Jackson’s poverty line is close to 25%.
“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. Thompson found that baby formulas can be mixed with water. However, Thompson needed to get milk in order to use the formula.
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. The crisis has been hard on restaurants, hotels and other hospitality establishments. 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 claims that all people are suffering at the moment and that this problem will get worse over time. “Whether it’s a small business or large business, sales are down because our customer base is hurting. They require the basics, and water is one such essential. 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.
Callan recently added water from this house to his album. It appears nearly black in Jackson, Miss., on September 1, 2022.
Anna Lois Callan provided the photo
Jacksonians felt abandoned by society and officials over decades of crisis. Some residents have fled, while others have stayed. 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,” Callan 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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