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Avoiding the tap water in Jackson, Miss., has been a way of life for decades

Jarvis Jones and John Knight help distribute free bottled water at the Sykes Park Community Center in Jackson, Mississippi.
Leslie Gamboni for NPR
Jarvis Jones and John Knight help distribute free bottled water at the Sykes Park Community Center in Jackson, Mississippi.

The same day that 600 National Guard members deployed around Jackson, Miss., to distribute water to tens of thousands of people, one steady line of cars flowed instead through a quiet residential neighborhood, as they've been doing for months.

The Sykes Park Community Center got a large filter six months ago to purify water for local residents to pick up.

"We just don't do it periodically. We do it every single day," says Jason Page, a youth mentor with the group Strong Arms, who speaks as he directs traffic in and out of the parking lot. "The Jackson water has been messed up for a while now."

A week after more than 160,000 residents lost their water, it's still not clear when the city's primary water treatment plant, O.B. Curtis, will be back up. But even when that happens, people here say the larger crisis will not be over. Jackson's water has been unreliable and unsafe for decades. Many residents accuse the state government of neglecting the needs of a city that's 82% Black. And those tensions, along with Jackson's shrunken tax base, pose a challenge to any lasting solution.

Jason Page is a youth mentor with the group Strong Arms. He helps distribute water at the Sykes Community Center.
Walter Ray Watson / NPR
/
NPR
Jason Page is a youth mentor with the group Strong Arms. He helps distribute water at the Sykes Community Center.

The rituals of boiling water, and the luxury of a bath

Lifelong resident Halima Olufemi, 45, remembers her great-grandmother and grandmother boiling water. "So much so that we would buy extra jugs and they would always pour the water in," she says. "It was a way of life."

She's now an activist with the People's Advocacy Institute and has been helping distribute water in this emergency.

So has Danyelle Holmes, with the Mississippi Poor People's Campaign. Thirty years ago she moved here from Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta to go to college and was told not to drink the water.

"I've never drank tap water since I've been here in the city of Jackson," Holmes says. "Never."

The city's aging water lines can leak, leading to low pressure and contamination. There have also been broken water and sewage lines. And in 2016 the state's health department warned that it had found lead in the water supply.

Even before this crisis, Holmes always boiled her water. She does take showers, but her water is usually tinted brown, and she refuses to take a bath in that.

"Now, before my mom passed away three years ago, it did me good to just go home to take baths back in Greenwood," she says. "That was a luxury for me."

Danyelle Holmes, an activist with Mississippi's Poor People Campaign, stands for a portrait at the Westland Plaza Parking Lot as she helps distribute water in Jackson.
/ Leslie Gamboni for NPR
/
Leslie Gamboni for NPR
Danyelle Holmes, an activist with Mississippi's Poor People Campaign, stands for a portrait at the Westland Plaza Parking Lot as she helps distribute water in Jackson.

A city and state divided by race and politics

When you ask almost anyone here why the water's been this bad so long, the answer inevitably turns to politics and race. School desegregation led to white flight in the 1970s. That transformed Jackson into an overwhelmingly Black city and a largely poor one. The mayor is Black and a Democrat. The governor and most state lawmakers are white and Republican.

Danyelle Holmes says the water is a danger to residents because "those that are in power ... neglected to do what they had the power to do, and that is to invest in the infrastructure here in the city of Jackson."

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba says fixing the water system would cost more than a billion dollars. There's no way Jackson's shriveled tax base could pay for that. But when the city asks the state for money, it usually gets far less than requested, if any.

The governor blames water problems on the city's mismanagement. This year he signed the state's largest ever tax cut.

For activist Olufemi, it's all part of the country's fraught racial history, and how she says those in power have always treated the economically disadvantaged, especially people of color.

"I don't think that they care until it happens to them," she says. "Until it affects their homes, their children, their money, they don't pay attention."

Tyisin Peoples, Joshua Freeman, and Jarvis Jones  help distribute free bottled water at the Sykes Park Community Center in Jackson, Mississippi.
/ Leslie Gamboni for NPR
/
Leslie Gamboni for NPR
Tyisin Peoples, Joshua Freeman, and Jarvis Jones help distribute free bottled water at the Sykes Park Community Center in Jackson, Mississippi.

Making infrastructure work can be a unifying force

Carlos Martín of the Brookings Institution says the impact of race and partisan politics on infrastructure is real, and Jackson residents are not alone. But ideally, making infrastructure work should unite people.

"In many ways, it's a miracle that we don't have more Jackson, Mississippis, and Flint, Michigans, in this country," he says. "And that's for the grace of God and infrastructure that ties most communities' infrastructures together."

He says on the whole around the country, infrastructure ties together communities that are Black and white, rich and poor, creating a shared interest in keeping the systems working properly.

But "when we don't see those same communities being served by the same physical infrastructure systems, we see more of these cases" like Jackson, he says.

Martín says Jackson and other minority, low-income cities lack the political clout to get the resources they need for long term planning and investment. And it's not clear this current crisis will lead to that either.

"Money fixes things at the last minute," he says. "We have, generally, a history of doing things like what we're seeing right now in Jackson, declaring an emergency once the damage has already occurred."

Kevin Edwards delivers free water to residents from a repurposed school bus at the Westland Plaza Parking Lot in Jackson, Mississippi, on Friday.
/ Leslie Gamboni for NPR
/
Leslie Gamboni for NPR
Kevin Edwards delivers free water to residents from a repurposed school bus at the Westland Plaza Parking Lot in Jackson, Mississippi, on Friday.

Tensions over blame amid calls for a long-term fix

At a recent press conference, when asked why Jackson has had unreliable water for decades, Gov. Tate Reeves was defensive.

"I know that you in the press want to play the blame game and you really want to focus on pitting different people against each other, and that's certainly your priority, that's fine," he said. "What we are focused on is the immediate health and welfare of Jackson residents."

It was the first press conference all week where the governor and mayor actually appeared together. Both Reeves and Mayor Lumumba repeatedly emphasized their "operational unity."

"When I have been asking for this help, when the state comes to me and says we're coming to help you, it doesn't benefit for us to try and take jabs at each other, to fight in that moment," Lumumba said. "What we have to take advantage of is this opportunity to realize how we create a better system for our residents."

Halima Olufemi, an activist with the People's Advocacy Institute, stands for a portrait at the Westland Plaza Parking Lot as she helps distribute water.
/ Leslie Gamboni for NPR
/
Leslie Gamboni for NPR
Halima Olufemi, an activist with the People's Advocacy Institute, stands for a portrait at the Westland Plaza Parking Lot as she helps distribute water.

But it wasn't long before another tit-for-tat spat between the two, raising questions about whether they can effectively work together even in a crisis that's gained national attention.

Jackson will get money from the recent federal infrastructure law — which, researcher Martín points out, most of the state's congressional delegation voted against. It's up to the state to decide how to parcel out those funds among municipalities.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have met in private to talk about new ideas for some kind of long-term fix. Some have called for addressing the crisis in a special session of the legislature, which is not due to meet again until January.

For now, though, thousands of people here will keep lining up for the water they need to cook, wash dishes and drink.

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

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer for NPR News.