Flooding exacerbates water crisis in Mississippi capital

·4 min read

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In Mississippi's capital, emergency officials are going to distribute bottled water to residents, a local university is using temporary restrooms for students and people who do have water are boiling it to wash dishes as a longstanding water crisis exacerbated by recent flooding is causing low-water pressure problems.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves late Monday said he's declaring a state of emergency after excessive rainfall worsened problems in one of Jackson’s already troubled water-treatment plants. The problems are causing low water pressure through much of the city of 150,000 people located in central Mississippi.

The low pressure raised concerns about firefighting and about people’s ability to take showers or flush toilets.

Reeves said the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will start distributing both drinking water and non-potable water, and the National Guard will be called in to help. The governor said he understands people's frustrations.

“I get it. I live in the city. It’s not news that I want to hear,” Reeves said. “But we are going to be there for you.”

The problems at the water treatment plant came after the city appeared to largely avoid widespread flooding from a Pearl River swollen by days of heavy rain. One home was flooded Monday but Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the water did not rise as high as expected. Earlier projections showed about 100 to 150 buildings in the Jackson area faced the possibility of flooding.

The National Weather Service said the Pearl River had crested at about 35.4 feet (10.8 meters). That is short of the major flood stage level of 36 feet (10.97 meters).

Jackson has two water-treatment plants, and the larger one is near a reservoir that provides most of the city’s water supply. The reservoir also has a role in flood control.

Lumumba — a Democrat who was not invited to the Republican governor’s news conference — said flooding has created additional problems at the treatment plant, and low water pressure could last a few days.

“What I liken it to is if you were drinking out of a Styrofoam cup, someone puts a hole in the bottom of it, you’re steady trying to fill it while it’s steady running out at the bottom,” Lumumba said.

Jackson has longstanding problems with its water system. A cold snap in 2021 left a significant number of people without running water after pipes froze. Similar problems happened again early this year, on a smaller scale. Even before the flooding Monday caused low-water pressure problems, city residents since July were already being advised to boil the water coming out of their pipes before using it to wash dishes or to do other household chores. Tests found a cloudy quality to the water that could lead to health problems.

The mayor said last week that fixing Jackson’s water system could cost $200 million. That is more than two times the $75 million the whole state is receiving to address water problems as part of the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Legislative leaders reacted with alarm to Jackson’s latest water system problems.

“We have grave concerns for citizens’ health and safety,” Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said in a statement Monday, suggesting the state take a role in trying to solve the issue.

The Republican House speaker, Philip Gunn, said he has been contacted by hospitals, businesses and schools “pleading that something be done to address the water crisis in Jackson.”

As the Pearl River started to rise last week, some Jackson residents started moving furniture and appliances out of their homes, and others stocked up on sandbags. Two years ago, torrential rain caused the river to reach 36.7 feet (11.2 meters) and Jackson homes in the hardest-hit neighborhoods were filled with dirty, snake-infested floodwaters.

Suzannah Thames owns a three-bedroom rental home in northeast Jackson that flooded with about 3 feet (1 meter) of water in 2020. Thames hired a crew to move appliances, furniture and other belongings out of the home Friday. She said Monday that the home flooded with about 3 to 4 inches (7.6 to 10.2 centimeters) of water late Sunday.

“I thought it was going to be a lot worse,” Thames said. “I feel very fortunate. I feel very blessed.”

Emily Wagster Pettus And Michael Goldberg, The Associated Press