Jackson dealing with another water crisis after cold weather damages beleaguered system

Jackson, Mississippi, is dealing with its third water crisis in two years. This time, residents and businesses are under a boil advisory because of a loss of pressure that began on Christmas Eve. Ted Henifin is the interim manager hired to help fix the problems there. He was appointed by the DOJ after a massive system outage in August. Henifin joined Lisa Desjardins to discuss the latest problem.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jackson, Mississippi, is dealing with a water crisis once again. This time, residents and businesses are under a boil advisory because of a loss of pressure that began on Christmas Eve.

    Lisa Desjardins has the latest.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is the third water crisis in two years after a system breakdown in 2021 and a treatment plant failure last August.

    Each time, residents were left without water for weeks. Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said the city is making progress, but this was again caused by systemic issues.

    Chokwe Lumumba (D), Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi: When the temperatures drop as low as they do, when we need — when we have the issues in our hundreds of miles of pipe that we have, then there's no way in that span of time to deal with that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The problems are so bad, the Department of Justice has stepped in and, as part of an agreement with the city, appointed expert Ted Henifin as a new interim manager to help fix the problems there.

    And Ted Henifin joins me now.

    First, we know a lot of this is weather-related, but help us. What's the situation now on the ground? And what does it mean for residents?

  • Ted Henifin, Interim Manager, Jackson, Mississippi, Water System:

    So, it's always terrible not to have water, and wake up Christmas morning and a significant number of the folks in Jackson did not have enough pressure to get water into their house.

    We have been working the last couple of days to remedy that. Today, I'd like to report that majority have enough pressure to actually get water in their homes. We still have a boil water notice, which is a precautionary notice to tell people that do get water to boil it before they drink it, just so that we can make sure that it's safe.

    We will do some more testing probably later in the week. We're shooting for Friday. We would like to be able to get those results and get that boil water notice lifted some time before the weekend kicks in. So, early Saturday, maybe, at the latest is what we're shooting for.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, you have called Jackson a sort of canary in the coal mine of water crisis.

    And I wonder, when you look at these decades of problems, where do you see the issues here? What led to this? Was this a failure of government, a failure of resources?

  • Ted Henifin:

    I think everyone could take a pit of the blame if you look back.

    And I have been really focused on looking forward. That's what the Department of Justice and the stipulated order really has me focused on is moving forward. I think it's not that atypical. And I do think it's a canary — a bit of a canary in the coal mine.

    The lack of investment across the United States in underground infrastructure has — is notoriously low. And the stuff under the ground that people can't see in general is just a hard place to put a lot of money. And it's not a really great political love time to go out and cut the ribbon on a pipe no one can see in the ground.

    So it's always been a challenge. It continues to be a challenge. I think Jackson's just got a lot of issues wrapped around that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, the federal government has allocated some $700 million to try and help there in Jackson. Some of that's going to replace pipes entirely, others going to other parts of the system.

    This is a city that hasn't even mapped, doesn't even really know where all of its valves are right now. Is that money going to be a Band-Aid? Or do you think this could really rewrite the future for this city?

  • Ted Henifin:

    I do think it's going to rewrite the water future.

    I think we will be — with that appropriate application those funds, the right projects, I think we can put issues like this in the rearview mirror. That doesn't mean a deep freeze. Jackson is in the South. And I truly believe climate change is showing up in very different ways.

    And, across the south, they have had several these sort of once-in-a-lifetime deep freezes over the last five, 10 years. And there's almost no way to protect all of the infrastructure in these Southern cities from that kind of deep freeze. So, everything we put in new and replace, we will be thinking in terms of, this needs to be more protected and resilient to freezing weather.

    But I think that's going to continue to be a problem across the South in cities. But Jackson — I really think this investment applied wisely will rewrite the history for water in Jackson going forward.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Briefly, in our last 30 seconds, this has really tried the patience of residents there in Jackson.

    How would you say their outlook is now, amid all the difficulties they're still facing?

  • Ted Henifin:

    They have been amazingly stoic through this.

    As I started, I was appointed at the end of November. I have had a couple of public meetings, very optimistic and encouraging to help me make whatever progress I can. I'm a little concerned now, three months — I'm less than a month, and we have a major disaster around pipes and water.

    And so, hopefully, they will continue to give me a break and understand this took a long time to get here. It's going to take a little while to get out of it. But I am committed to try to make a big difference in this first year.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Ted Henifin, interim director overseeing water fixes in the city of Jackson, Mississippi, thank you.

  • Ted Henifin:

    Thank you, Lisa.

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