Heavy rain and severe river flooding over the weekend have plunged Mississippi’s state capital into a serious health crisis, cutting nearly 180,000 people off from the city’s sanitary water supply for the foreseeable future.
Jackson’s population, of which 80% are Black, has been told the problem is indefinite and is now under a boil water advisory.
Flooding from the nearby Pearl River destroyed pumps at the city’s main water treatment facility, which continues to be plagued by understaffing and infrastructure problems. The facility, known as O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, was already using backup pumps after the main pumps failed last month.
Jackson’s humanitarian and climate crisis follows a summer of extreme weather events throughout the country. Historic flooding in eastern Kentucky during July and August killed a dozen people. Record flooding and mudslides forced Yellowstone National Park, which spans three states, to close in June after roads and bridges washed out. Last month, a severe heat wave in the Pacific north-west caused at least four deaths.
But Jackson’s longstanding water issues are the latest that have laid bare the complex intersection of climate change, racism and crumbling infrastructure that has worsened after decades of population decline – gutting the state capital’s tax base and ability to borrow money.
Reckon spoke to Andrew Whitehurst, Water Program Director at the non-profit environmental group Healthy Gulf and a board member of the Pearl Riverkeeper, about the crisis. Whitehurst lives near Jackson and has studied environmental issues in the area for many years.
Jackson is now in a serious health crisis. Recent reports note that Pearl River flooded after prolonged and severe flooding, which overwhelmed an already struggling water system. What else can you tell us about this ongoing crisis?
The pumps at the water plant were already in bad repair after last year’s big freeze, which wiped out Texas’s power grid. The pumps froze at the O.B. Curtis plant in 2021, and they have had serious infrastructure problems since then. The city has been on boil water notices for a month before now and intermittent boil water notices for at least 12 months. The plant had been limping along, doing about 80% of the city’s water treatment. Another older plant was doing about 20%.
Even though this flooding isn’t as bad as what we’ve had before, this is a far more serious problem than they had in the big freeze and in the ensuing 12 months.
You mentioned infrastructure problems. What has caused those?
Some of Jackson’s infrastructure is more than 100 years old and built on the Yazoo River clay formation. That clay shrinks and swells and destroys pipes underground. Constantly shrinking and swelling during hot summers and cold winters.
They’ve been losing the maintenance battle with the old infrastructure for a long time. On top of that, the city is bleeding tax revenue, because people have been leaving for over 30 years. They fled to the two suburban counties that surround Jackson, which has ripped the taxbase out of Jackson. That means it’s struggling to raise money or get federal grants.
The city hasn’t upgraded its large infrastructure in at least 10 years, or at least nothing that would solve the Yazoo clay problem. And apparently, they haven’t been watching what’s been going on at the water plants. The city engineer also left this past year and the water plants have been using a skeleton staff with positions open and unfilled.
Severe weather has been in the news lately – flooding, mudslides, enormous fires – how has climate change come into play in Jackson?
Climate change is part of what’s happening in Jackson. It experienced the single worst day of rainfall in August on record. I think that was last Wednesday or Thursday. But it broke a record in places that got 12 inches to 15 inches in 24 hours. It was unbelievable.
What happened was a low pressure system came up from the Yucatan across the Bay of Campeche, into Texas, and then took a right turn. It didn’t move very fast, similar to what happened in Baton Rouge in 2016 and in Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. These tropical systems come in the back door, instead of coming across Cuba and Haiti and plowing across Florida and then taking a hard right and bending up to North Carolina when they get into (the) Gulf. They seem to be doing their own thing as far as slowing down and dropping unprecedented amounts of rain.
It sounds like unpredictable and more severe weather seems to be a recent and common occurrence. Why is that?
I would go to the standard explanation that a hotter atmosphere holds more water. These weather systems are coming in in unusual ways, out of the traditional pattern of other tropical depressions and hurricanes. They come in from west to east and slowly discharge their rainfall.
And that could be a telltale sign of what people tell us about climate change - much wetter and slow rainstorms with much greater precipitation with them.
It sounds like climate change is placing greater demands on our infrastructure. What’s the solution for places like Jackson that need better infrastructure but are struggling?
First, the city needs to get infrastructure money. It’s not clear how that will happen right now.
The state of Mississippi has given Jackson some help with its water problems, but until last night, I don’t think the state took a really strong position on offering help. It seemed to be willing to let Jackson twist in the wind. It’s well known that the governor and the mayor don’t get along. Of course that shouldn’t be an impediment to fixing the city’s infrastructure problems.
But the governor did put an emergency order out through the Health Department for 480 days. There’s a command center being set up by the state and the Curtis [treatment plant] starting Tuesday will do triage on what the worst problems are, but they will need to get federal and state money to help.
The governor has called a special session to help fund and fix Jackson’s water problems. But it took this extra crisis on top of continuing crisis to bring that about. So, the governor has finally turned his head strongly toward the problem.
What about critical services, such as hospitals?
All the major hospitals in Jackson have drilled their own wells and have their own water towers. That should tell you something. The medical establishment has known for a while that they cannot rely on the city if they want to operate. It’s just pretty sad.
Do you have any final thoughts on how this might play out?
In a couple of weeks I think they’ll get the pumps in place and get back to the limping along with boil water notices, which has become the normal way of life and Jackson people are tired of it. It’s also expensive, especially for the poor.
They can’t really afford to buy bottled water at the store all the time, but they have to find a way otherwise they get sick. I think what will come out in the next few days, or weeks, is that people have been getting sick with diarrhea.
How to Help.
The following groups are accepting cash and supply donations. Donate Money:
Operation Good is taking donations through Cashapp ($Operationgoodms).
The Immigrant Alliance for Justice & Equity of Mississippi Venmo (@IAJEofMS) Cashapp ($IAJEofMS) Paypal (@IAJEofMS)
MS Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team ($JxnWaterCrisis22) on Cashapp.
The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is also accepting donations.
Where to donate water and supplies directly.
Locals can donate to the following groups.
The Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Operation Good: Call (601) 874-4521
2827 Oak Forest Dr., Jackson, MS, 39204
New Horizon International Church: Call (601) 371-1427
Cooperation Jackson: Email email@example.com or call (601) 355-7224
How else can you help?
City officials are asking for volunteers to help distribute water and other supplies. People who wish to volunteer can email: firstname.lastname@example.org