Right now, Calandra Davis’ water pressure is too low to take a shower. When she turns on her sinks, the water comes out at a slow trickle. For weeks, she’s had to bathe herself and her 6-year-old son with water from store-bought bottles. Like all residents of Jackson, Mississippi, she’s also been on a boil-water notice for a week due to high turbidity. But in many ways, she feels lucky.
“I feel like I’m privileged in that I have water at all right now and in that I didn’t go super long without water,” she said. Unlike more than 50,000 people in her city, she also didn’t lose power.
Davis, a policy analyst at Hope Policy Institute and organizer with the social justice organization Black Youth Project 100, has been spending hours each day on mutual aid efforts, delivering food and water, and helping get those without utilities into hotel rooms. While working a local emergency relief hotline, she’s heard from people who are struggling because they have medical conditions that require electronic devices or water access, and from dozens whose groceries all spoiled when their power went out. She says in Jackson, the lowest-income Black communities in the south and west are facing the worst effects.
“It’s environmental racism,” she said.
Infrastructural issues in Jackson aren’t new, and they’re also not unique to the city. They’re endemic in the state, and they disproportionately affect poor, Black populations. Though the spotlight might still be on Texas, it’s clear that the infrastructure we rely on for modern life is in dire need of updates across the South. If we don’t make them, low-income people of color will continue to suffer the worst burdens.
During last month’s southern cold snap, Texas captured headlines. But Mississippi and other parts of the South faced similar frigid conditions that national news crews passed over. Some parts of the state saw their lowest temperatures in recorded history, and water systems throughout central Mississippi were thrown into complete disarray. Jackson’s main water plant was rendered inoperable by the cold. Davis lost water altogether for two days. While her water is marginally back, others are currently on their third week without any. While the weather has warmed up, people’s lives are still stuck in mid-February.
Like Texas, Mississippi is a state run by conservatives who believe in very limited government, which has made these immediate issues harder to overcome. Organizers like Davis have stepped in to help, but the lack of national attention has left them with a smaller stream of donations than those pouring into Texas organizations.
“Texas needs and deserves all of the resources and assistance that they’re getting, if not more, but I would love for people not to turn a blind eye to what’s also happening in Mississippi as well,” said Davis.
Over the past week, people have started to open their eyes as Jackson’s water crisis. But stories of other parts of Mississippi, especially its poor, rural areas home to many of the state’s people of color, are still largely absent. Nearby communities are also on boil-water notice, including Holmes County’s 98% Black Tchula and 76.2% Black Cruger, and Claireborne County’s 91.5% Black Port Gibson. Dozens of households in both counties are also still experiencing power outages, as are hundreds within Jackson.
“I want clean water and a stable system in the city of Jackson, but not only just in the city of Jackson, I want that for the rural communities that are suffering,” Danyelle Holmes, a field team lead for the Poor People’s Campaign who lives in Jackson, said. “As we speak, right now, they’re also in the same predicament.”
Last month’s cold weather was an acute shock to Mississippi’s water systems and power grid, but the ongoing damage is the product of decades of neglect and disinvestment. Without funding and support, both systems are bound to fail the people they’re supposed to serve again, especially as extreme weather becomes more common amid the climate crisis and puts increased pressure on infrastructure.
Long before the recent storm, Jackson was also often plagued by water main breaks and had reported lead concentrations in drinking water well above federal action levels, all the result of aging infrastructure. Many pipes in the city are more than a century old, and official estimates that the necessary upgrades and repairs will cost $2 billion. Jackson’s water is also frequently contaminated by agricultural runoff in the Mississippi River. On top of that, the city’s out-of-date water billing system has been a source of inaccurate bills and endless frustration, costing residents time and money for a system that’s wholly inadequate.
“Sure, right now we’re on a boil-water notice, but that happens quite frequently,” said Holmes. “And we often lose pressure at our water treatment plants, so it’s not unusual for us to experience that or be on a boil water alert. It’s not even unusual for water to be brown...or to have a smell like chlorine or even smell like sewer. On a good day we have clear water, but on a normal day the water is brown.”
The city is 82% Black with a median household income under $40,000. Research shows that across the country, contaminated drinking water and water system breakdown is more likely to affect communities of color. While Mississippi is majority-white and a stronghold of the Republican party at the state level, Jackson’s current mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba—the son of a well-known Black revolutionary—ran on a promise to make his city “the most radical city on the planet.” Improving its infrastructure would be a step in the right direction, yet the city only has so many resources at its disposal; its operating budget is just over $350 million and only a fraction is for water and sewage. Fixing the structural problems facing Jackson’s infrastructure—to say nothing of even smaller towns in rural Mississippi—requires federal and state help. Yet state officials seem more intent on blaming city officials than working with them.
Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Tate Reeve intimated that it was city officials’ fault for these infrastructural crises on Jackson’s city leadership. But Rukia Lumumba, founder of the People’s Advocacy Institute and sister of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, said that the state is, in fact, to blame.
“The state’s response has been significantly inadequate and neglectful,” she said. “But they blame it on the progressive, Black leadership.”
She noted Reeves waited until a week into the water crisis to mobilize the National Guard to help get people water for drinking, cooking, and flushing toilets. It was only Thursday that Reeves announced he requested federal aid despite the ongoing disaster.
This neglect, Lumumba said, is what she’s come to expect from Reeves. Just last year, he failed to pass a bill that would have provided funding for struggling water ratepayers and infrastructure repairs. Unlike Jackson’s city leadership, he has also consistently failed to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis, and the ways it will make those repairs and upgrades all the more urgent as it ushers in more erratic weather. That includes not just cold snaps but also heat waves that could increase water demand and increased flooding, which could strain already damaged pipes.
To fix all this, Rukia Lumumba said the state should make funds available immediately, not just to Jackson but also to surrounding rural communities, which are plagued with similar issues. State leaders should also increase the amount of food and water supplies they are distributing to struggling residents. Rukia Lumumba spearheaded the Mississippi Winter Storm Rapid Response Fund through which Davis and Holmes have both been distributing necessary aid, but grassroots organizers depending on donations are no replacement for state leadership and funding.
Beyond these emergency measures, she also said the state should call upon climate experts and local organizers to help determine what infrastructure repairs are needed, and should call upon federal leaders to help fund that plan. On the national level, several proposals in the works which could help secure that funding to fix infrastructure and prepare it for climate change.
Last week, Democratic members of Congress in both chambers reintroduced the WATER Act, which would guarantee $35 billion annually for fixing and replacing infrastructure, addressing water contamination, and providing relief to those with unaffordable water and sewage bills. The coming covid-19 economic relief package could also be an opportunity to mobilize funding to fix water systems. Doing so could also create jobs for the millions around the country who are unemployed. And President Joe Biden has promised to allocate “40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments” for frontline communities plagued by environmental injustice.
“To ensure that the resources are getting to the right places, you’re going to have to go to the grassroots,” Rukia Lumumba said. “You’re going to have to literally talk to the organizations and mayors and [have a] hyperlocal strategy where you’re not relying on governors to distribute resources justly, fairly, across their state.”
Putting conservative state leaders in charge of deciding whether or not climate relief or infrastructural funding is available to frontline communities, said Holmes, will lead to further disaster.
“It shouldn’t be a gamble of if and when the state government is going to act,” she said. “We need to fix this issue. We need to fix it now.”
Correction 3/5/2021, 12:00 p.m. ET: A previous version of this post misspelled Port Gibson, MS as Fort Gibson, MS. We regret the error.