Brokenness in Jackson rising to the top

Hinds County Emergency Management Operations staff checking water levels in Northeast Jackson, Monday, Aug. 29. AP Photo by Rogelio V. Solis

By Christopher Young,

Contributing Writer,

Julienne Street, South of Downtown Jackson on Sunday. Photo By: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Aging, inadequate, and now – crippled; Jackson’s water and sewage systems are on their very last legs. Critical infrastructure, having been ignored by state and local leaders for decades, is barely capable of being Band-Aided at this point. Hopefully the citizens of Jackson, and the scores of people across Central Mississippi and beyond who benefit from the economics inherent in Jackson, take notice of the recent sequence of events.

To his credit, Mayor Lumumba, has never sugar-coated the problems here. It’s rare to hear him speak without mention that Jackson is in crisis, with a capital C. Eliciting desperately needed partners to apply solutions has been elusive for him.

Today we see elected officials at the state level all lining up to opine on Jackson’s “failed” water system. Where were they two weeks ago, two months ago, two years ago and two decades ago? Missing in action sums it up, and why these leaders have been impotent defies good sense.

Have you ever wondered if we would be facing this struggle for a necessity of life – clean and ample drinking water, if our city was still majority white? Do you think they have this problem in Tupelo?

Jackson does not have the funding to adequately address this, and other infrastructure needs by itself. White flight and its accompanying loss of business tax revenue, a copious number of state entities not contributing to the tax base itself as well as hordes of state employees that pay their taxes elsewhere, and the futility of forming a true partnership with this Capital city, all contribute to our lack of funding. 

State Senator Hillman Frazier informs me that we can’t overlook that historically many legislators in powerful positions were from rural areas, and that funding flowed that way. He also indicated that most of our federal legislators directed more funds to rural areas and to military bases. And lastly that so many entities receive tax-exempt status, including most churches, which is a drain on Jackson’s tax base, also. 

It’s tiring to say it over and over, but there is no embrace of Jackson. In the last few days our highest elected officials have had press conferences or announcements about Jackson, yet it’s not important to them to be standing alongside the Mayor of Jackson, in unity. They speak to Jackson, not with Jackson. Is it willful lack of regard or does it not even cross their minds? 

Governor Reeves has issued a State of Emergency “due to failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.” WLBT staff reports that Health Department officials have indicated Monday that 150,000 people are impacted by the cuts in service. On Tuesday morning the MSDH issued a declaration of public drinking water supply emergency in the city of Jackson. The Order, “pursuant to Mississippi Safe Drinking Water Act of 1997 and on the Declaration, the State Health Officer hereby orders the City of Jackson including but not limited to, employees of the Public Works Department and Emergency Management immediately cooperate with state response teams and contractors deployed to augment current staffing and to take remediation actions deemed necessary by the State Incident Commander.” The Order shall remain in full force and effect for not more than one hundred twenty days. 

There are two silver linings. The National Weather Service says that when the Pearl River hits 28 feet on the gauges at Jackson, that it’s considered flood stage. Moderate flood stage is 33 feet, and major flood stage is 36 feet. Initial predictions were that the river would crest at Jackson at 36 feet, but it stopped at 35.4 feet; seems inconsequential, but it’s not. By press time of this paper Wednesday evening, it is projected to be at 28.4 feet – a seven-foot drop in two and a half days. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Lumumba provided an update indicating that he welcomes the assistance from the state with open arms, that he is “looking forward to the state’s assistance and the myriad improvements that are sure to come.” He reported that he has had productive discussions with the Department of Health and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

The mayor clarified comments made by state officials yesterday, indicating that “to my knowledge no untreated water has made it to customers.”

Riding South Jackson streets, I encountered several people reporting low water pressure, but none without water. One lady said, “It’s strange but I actually think I have better pressure and cleaner looking water now than I did two days ago.”

A tanker truck was at Forest Hills High School, provided by Socrates Garrett Enterprises, dispensing potable water to a slow stream of customers. My stop at New Horizon Church on Ellis Avenue revealed that two churches and a bank have already donated to them today, and an 18-wheeler was due soon to drop off eighteen pallets of bottled water, according to Bill Washington, point-person for Bishop Crudup’s water distribution effort, and in conjunction with the active engagement of Working Together Jackson. 

On Wednesday morning a tanker truck was spotted on West Street adjacent to the Governor’s Mansion. Many people near Robinson Road & Rose Street and Monument & Capital Street, areas mostly forgotten, reported no water at all. A maintenance staff worker at Jackson State reported that the water is still running, but you can’t drink it. “It is what it is here,” he summarized.

Yesterday, it remained to be seen if the State of Mississippi and the Federal Government will commit to replacing the old system, at a projected cost of 1.2 billion dollars.

Mayor Lumumba was clear, “I firmly believe the residents of Jackson are worthy of this support… and worthy of a sustainable, equitable system.”

The second silver lining is that late Tuesday the Governor announced on Twitter that his federal disaster declaration for Jackson water had been approved. 

We thank President Biden for the approval, which by many accounts, will provide for a minimum of 75% of the bill.

Mayor Lumumba announced in a press conference held on the steps of city hall Wednesday afternoon that he received an extensive lengthy phone call from President Joe Biden and a separate call from Vice President Kamala Harris. He said, ”Both assured me that the eyes of Washington are watching the City of Jackson and they wanted us to know we should expect the full arm of support from the federal government in every way that they possibly can.”

The mayor said he was told that the assistance would be implemented in immediate measures through “FEMA supporting the measures of MEMA and this support would be implemented through long-term measures of EPA. The mayor said he was delighted to receive the calls in support of the residences of Jackson. 

Publisher Jackie Hampton contributed to this article.

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