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Water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi highlights ‘dire state’ of city’s infrastructure

Much of Mississippi's largest city is beginning its fourth week without safe drinking water coming out of faucets. Jackson residents, about 80 percent of whom are Black, remain under a system-wide order to boil water, and some don't have any running water at all. Since a mid-February storm, the city has had about 80 water main breaks. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba joins John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been nearly a month since a deep freeze hit parts of the South, knocking out power and water in Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere.

    But, in Jackson, Mississippi, the largest city in the state, water service is still not totally reliable.

    John Yang has the details.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, much of Mississippi's largest city is beginning its fourth week without safe drinking water coming out of faucets. Jackson residents, about 80 percent of whom are Black, remain under a systemwide order to boil water. And some don't have any running water at all.

    Joanne Moore lives in South Jackson.

  • Joanne Moore:

    We're just taking it day by day. That's all we can do until we get fuller restoration of our water. It's been hard, but we have been dealing with it. But the infrastructure is just so old.

  • John Yang:

    Since a mid-February winter storm, the city has had about 80 water main breaks.

    Chokwe Antar Lumumba is the mayor of Jackson.

    He joins us now.

    Mr. Mayor, thanks so much.

    Tell us, what is the situation right now, as we speak? And give us some idea of what life has been like for your residents for the past three weeks.

  • Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba:

    Life has been quite difficult for our residents.

    As you can imagine, it not only has limited people's ability to drink water and to eat food and cook with water, but to bathe. And we have to remember that we are in the midst of a pandemic, so it becomes all the more alarming to not have water for all of the hygienic recommendations that we have laid out in the midst of this pandemic in almost every conceivable way.

    Where we are today, fortunately, we can report that we're towards the end of our journey. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of less than 500 residents that are still without water, and the majority of those have low water pressure. And that might be on account of a myriad of issues, breaks that have happened in their homes, issues with the water meter.

    And so we are quickly moving to bring that number down. We won't be satisfied until the very last resident has their water restored.

  • John Yang:

    You have talked to both state and federal officials about help, about help to sort of repair the system and then bring the system up to date. What has been the response?

  • Chokwe Antar Lumumba:

    Well, fortunately we have been able to gain audience with the leadership in the Statehouse.

    Some members of (AUDIO GAP) family, like representation from the EPA, have reached out and expressed their desire to be supportive of the city of Jackson. So, we have made certain that we put in our estimated damages from the recent crisis that we suffered, and we hope that the state, the county, and through the state, issues that through the federal government.

    And we're hopeful, we're optimistic that we will be able to get the support that we need in order to address this most recent crisis. Jackson's infrastructure is in a dire state. It is an aged legacy city, where one of our plants is literally more than 100 years old. Another one is outdated, and so we are in need of several repairs, because we face more extreme weather conditions today.

    We have hotter summers, colder winters, and more rain in the rainy season.

  • John Yang:

    In the past couple of weeks, the governor and the lieutenant governor have both made remarks about the city, about the city's ability to collect water bills and keep up its infrastructure.

    The lieutenant governor even talked about — said that the last time work had been done was under a mayor who happened to have been the last white mayor of Jackson. What was your reaction to that?

  • Chokwe Antar Lumumba:

    Well, I think something that it is not often talked about, but is a reality, is that there are equity questions in terms of how infrastructure is supported, in terms of how cities are supported.

    And we need to be able to build equitable models of what it means to build and support cities. In fact, as we look at the success of our state economy, it should be more based on a dignity economy, which expresses the inherent dignity of every community, and not looked so based on issues of race.

    It is not surprising. It has been the history of the city of Jackson to not have support which is commensurate with the support that the city of Jackson provides to the state of Mississippi. What I mean by that is that we're the largest city by a factor of three, meaning we provide the overwhelming contribution to the state's taxes.

    We are the capital city, which means that many of our properties are not taxable. And we provide services to the state, such as give them water, with no payment for water bills. Where other cities, other capital cities in the nation get payment, in lieu of taxes, we don't receive that.

    And so these are questions that have needed to be answered for a long time. So, most certainly, city leadership has a responsibility to make certain that we're in a better place than in which how we receive the city. The state has a responsibility as well.

    And we will never solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it. It is that kind of thinking that created the problem in the first place.

  • John Yang:

    Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, thank you very much.

  • Chokwe Antar Lumumba:

    Thank you.

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