Mississippi capital’s water woes persist as aid trickles in

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A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official is scheduled to visit the US state of Mississippi, the White House has said, amid ongoing efforts to restore a flood-impaired, long-troubled water system.

In Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, residents have been lining up at emergency distribution points to get bottled water for drinking and water to flush their toilets after flooding exacerbated problems at one of the city’s two water treatment plants earlier this week.

Residents in Jackson, a city that is majority Black, have long struggled with a faulty water system that frequently requires them to boil their water before using it. They were already under a boil-water order before the flooding spurred the current crisis, leaving many without any water at all.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency on Monday and the National Guard has been called in, while President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration on Tuesday, directing his administration to increase federal assistance to the area.

“We’ve offered every single thing available to Mississippi. The governor has to act. There’s money to deal with this problem. We’ve given them EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. We’ve given them everything there is to offer,” Biden said late on Thursday.

While the president said he had no plans yet to visit Mississippi, he has been talking to people in the state. including Jackson’s mayor, Democrat Chokwe Antar Lumumba. He did not specifically say whether he had spoken to Reeves, a Republican.

FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell plans to visit the state on Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Officials said they made progress overnight in refilling tanks, treating water and increasing pressure at the OB Curtis Water Plant, the facility at the root of the latest water woes. Residents closer to the facility had pressure approaching normal levels, the city said in a statement, but added that many in the city still had little or no water pressure.

“It’s quite unnerving,” Jackson resident Shirley Harrington said on Thursday. “It’s like playing Russian roulette. You don’t know if you’re going to wake up with water, don’t know if you got water, don’t know what condition the water is in. There’s so many statements: ‘Do not drink,’ ‘Do not use,’ ‘You can use, but don’t drink,’ so you’re like, ‘What do I really do?’”

Black Voters Matter, a non-profit group focused on expanding Black voter engagement, said the water crisis in Jackson is the result of systemic racism that has led to decades of neglect.

“Jackson, which is 82.5% Black, is yet another example of a pattern of neglect that Black and Brown voters have faced across the South in which state and local governments ignore human rights and basic needs in our communities,” the group said in a statement.

At a news conference on Thursday, Reeves announced the opening of seven sites for distributing drinking water, non-potable water and hand sanitiser. The new “mega sites” follow smaller-scale distribution efforts at city fire stations, churches, nonprofits and businesses.

The governor also said 600 National Guard members were aiding in the response. “To everyone in the city: I know that you are dealing with a profoundly unfair situation,” Reeves said. “It’s frustrating, it’s wrong and it needs to be fixed.”

Residents of the Golden Keys Senior Living apartments flocking to a trailer full of water being delivered by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi [Steve Helber/AP Photo]

The water crisis affects the city’s 150,000 residents — many of whom have been unable to take showers or flush toilets — plus an estimated 30,000 others who come into the city to work at businesses without water pressure, Reeves said. Those businesses are suffering major economic harm, he added.

City communications director Melissa Payne said all of the water system’s customers — 46,000 residential accounts and 6,000 commercial — were affected by low water pressure at some time during the crisis.

The latest available figures from the city showed that 80 percent of the water system’s customers had little or no water as of Wednesday morning.

The crisis has hobbled Jackson. Many stores and restaurants have shut, while the public school system and Jackson State University have been forced to move classes online.

“There are some challenges remaining to navigate over the next few days, but the outlook for today is currently continued progress,” the city said in its latest update on Thursday morning.

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