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Jackson, Miss., is in a water emergency and residents don't have clean drinking water

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The water is receding from the streets of Jackson, Miss., but now little to no water is coming out of the taps. The state's governor, Tate Reeves, has declared a state of emergency after recent heavy rainfall caused flooding that aggravated problems at one of the city's water treatment plants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TATE REEVES: It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets and to meet other critical needs.

CHANG: Reporter Kobee Vance with Mississippi Public Broadcasting is in Jackson and joins us now. Hi, Kobee.

KOBEE VANCE, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: Hey. OK, so what is it like in Jackson right now? Like, can you just describe what you're seeing?

VANCE: Well, from this - from the mouth of our state health officer, don't drink the water. Schools are closed and doing virtual. Businesses are closing. Some medical appointments are being postponed. People are hitting grocery stores for bottled water. I spoke with Thomas Good outside of one in Jackson as he's loaded water into his trunk. He says they've been getting boil water notice for months, but now it's even worse.

THOMAS GOOD: I don't really trust the Jackson water too much. Last night, we used a water bottle, and we poked a bunch of holes in it, and we used that as a shower to try and get a faux shower going.

VANCE: The state health department issued an emergency boil water notice, saying it could be contaminated with E. coli, for example. The state and city are working to distribute drinking water. I visited one of their sites earlier today, but no residents were there yet.

CHANG: OK. Can you just explain, like, what is going on? Like, what is the actual problem with the city's water supply right now?

VANCE: Well, there's been concerns about the plumbing equipment at the city's water treatment facilities for some time. Actually, since the end of July, Jackson has been under a boil water notice. In the last few days, as we understand from Jackson's mayor, flooding from the Pearl River overwhelmed the water treatment system. A plant - a treatment plant couldn't treat all the dirty water coming in. An actual composition of the water slowly - the actual composition of the floodwater slowly processing, and the water pressures throughout the city dropped. This afternoon, the mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, said he welcomes the state's help after previous calls for assistance that have gone unanswered. Here we take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: The residents of Jackson are worthy. They are worthy of a dependable system. And we look forward to a coalition of the willing that will join us in the fight to improve this system that has been failing for decades.

VANCE: This is due to years of neglect, as many white residents of Jackson have fled the city, which is now 80% Black. Now, the brunt of these problems all fall on Black neighborhoods without a customer base to support the expensive water infrastructure. Governor Reeves is visiting the treatment facility this afternoon.

CHANG: I mean, Jackson's struggle with its water system, it's not new, right? Like, can you just put what's happening now in Jackson into context for us? What's the backdrop to all of this?

VANCE: That's right. To start with, Jackson's water infrastructure is old, needing tons of repairs, if not a complete overhaul. Patchwork repairs just aren't enough. And, again, it's just - there isn't revenue to fund what could be a $1 billion project. Just in 2021, a winter freeze resulted in weeks' worth of no water for residents in some parts of the city. There's also an ongoing issue with lead in the water in some old pipes. The state and locals have been at odds for years on how to fix it all.

CHANG: So, I mean, how does this resolve? Do you have a sense of when the city will have clean, running water again?

VANCE: That's the big question. It's not clear when the city's water is going to be restored or when the boil water notice is going to be dropped. The first step is for the state department of health to assess all the damages today.

CHANG: That is Kobee Vance of Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Thank you, Kobee.

VANCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kobee Vance