Jackson, Miss. Less than two miles from the Mississippi Capitol, Old black man storing water.
James Brooks, 78, keeps rows of plastic water bowls at his home in Jackson, which are filled with varying shades of gray, yellow and brown water. On the balcony. In the kitchen. in the bathroom. Tap water, water from Walmart, water from melting ice on the roof of his car, boiling water, distilled water, most of which drips and stores. There are so many gallon containers, it’s hard to walk, especially for his wife Jane who uses a wand.
And at the end of the front porch is a 99-gallon trash can, which he started packing in 2019, that holds more water because Brooks for 30 years has been mired in anxiety.
“You would have heard stories about water,” Brooks said. “The word is out. The infrastructure in Jackson was in bad shape. You have to worry about what’s under the asphalt.”
Decades of neglect, under investment and a refusal to repair water infrastructure have led to a crisis in Jackson, as residents struggle to find water for their daily lives.
“We live in a predominantly black society, and I don’t think we’re high on the priority list,” said Jan Brooks.
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Jackson, the largest city in Mississippi, has a population of just under 170,000, 81% of whom are black. More than 25% of Jackson’s residents live below the poverty line, and the average household income is around $ 38,000.
James Brooks refers to the houses surrounding an apartment building. The woman across the street keeps buckets to collect rainwater. A man across the road does the same. In Jackson, water buckets are a way of life.
Corrupt water fixed in Jackson like a birthmark.
At some point in the 1980s, Brooks began dealing with water on his own. He pulled out the pipes under his house and installed a new system. He insisted that he and his wife only drink bottled water, a habit she switched to drinking only distilled water. After that, he started stocking up.
“I was upset with him because this is crazy,” said Jane Brooks. “I felt like I was going to scream.”
Neither James nor Jane Brooks are crazy. He holds a master’s degree in economics and a doctorate in social work. He was a Vietnam military policeman, university professor, and advocate for Black Power at the time. She was also a college professor, Hippie and recalls, years ago, that she raised her voice to city officials about potholes that were on her way home from Jackson State University.
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James and Jean Brooks did not call anyone to complain about the water. They said fighting was pointless. She said she was simply bathing her eyes closed because she was anxious about what the water would do to see her.
The incumbent politicians, who control funding that could fix the water problems, said the scope of the city’s problems is greater than they can handle on their own.
In 2013, an evaluation of the city’s water system found that there are pipes that are at least 100 years old in many areas. Previous city departments had invested money in the system, but this resulted in patchy dressings doing little to address the root of the problem.
Today, city leaders say there is not enough funding to do what needs to be done. Jackson’s tax base is shrinking. As it stands, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba admits that the city has not been able to cover even routine maintenance of the system.
“The question then becomes why we have not been able to implement the required routine resource-related maintenance,” Lumumba said on Monday.
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Or residents blame themselves for not paying the bills. A study conducted in 2019 showed that as many as 20,000 residents did not pay their water bills. This problem is partly due to the ill-fated contract the city entered into with Siemens Industry Inc. , In 2012 to improve the water meter and billing system. The result was a tangled mess of under-bills, over-billing and some residents not getting bills at all. That culminated in a $ 450 million lawsuit.
City A settlement of $ 89.8 million was reached – The amount paid to Siemens roughly in the original contract – in 2020, but collection remains an issue.
When submitting multiple requests for comment from the Clarion Ledger, part of the USA TODAY network, about when to restore service, administrators can only submit temporary appointments, and they all came and went. Lumumba clarified on Monday that the $ 2 billion price that has floated for weeks is a combination of a previous assessment of the sewage system from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and water system studies that the city has conducted over the years.
Thousands of Jackson’s residents have been without water since the cold storm on February 15, and thousands more are advised to boil the water that comes out of the tap because it can be full of bacteria. Some pumping stations have stopped working. More than 100 main water lines were destroyed.
The ice storm only shed light on the problem.
This is not a new phenomenon.
A long history of water problems
The problem started with a special water delivery system that was built in 1888 and bought by the city in 1908. It is as old as the yazoo clay on which Jackson was built. Yazoo mud is vulnerable to climatic changes, as it contracts and expands like an accordion under streets, distorting the water pipes in the process.
Since 1982, unusual winter storm systems in the south have turned Jackson’s water system into sprinklers when the weather finally warms up.
A historic ice storm that struck the state in 1989 ruptured 182 lines and caused blackouts for several days. In 2018, freezing temperatures caused more than 200 major water outages across the city before work crews could install the system.
In the wake of the storm in mid-February, more than 100 breaks occurred across the city. Warnings about boiling water are extremely common, but no one in town can recall a complete outage that has lasted nearly the current crisis.
And breaks aren’t the only problem. The city issued precautions in 2016 when high levels of lead were found in tap water in some residences. Although the levels at the time were not in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, mothers and young children were advised to avoid drinking anything that exits Jackson’s diet.
The city’s sewage system also remains under decree of approval from the Environmental Protection Agency due to violations of the Clean Water Act.
Despite all the problems, there has been no significant investment in the system for several years. Without help from state and federal governments, city leaders say they are unlikely to have the means to do so.
A public works nightmare
For several years, Jackson’s Public Works Department has been understaffed and underfunded.
Prior to the departure of former Jacksonian Public Works Director Bob Miller in July 2020, several positions in the division were opened, affecting the ability to respond to breaks. In 2018, No less than 60 vacancies went to the department. Many jobs are still open today.
Revenue was another issue. Due to the water bills problem, the administration had to turn to the city’s general fund to cover the budget shortfall.
Charles Williams, the current director of public works, said a funding shortfall has also affected the agency’s ability to make necessary repairs to the city’s water and wastewater treatment plants. He said more money was needed to tackle problems.
On Monday, Williams said, “I’ll tell you one thing: You don’t need an excuse to spend money in Jackson.” “We have a lot of deficiencies related to our infrastructure systems, and (with) our ability to use (funding) to improve our community, we’ll use it to the fullest.”
The Forgotten Neighborhood
James and Jan Brooks said they feel left out by the people who can help them. They said that their neighborhood had been forgotten.
“The institutional knowledge is lost,” Brooks said.
They know it shouldn’t be this way.
James Brooks points to the next house where an elderly woman is renting.
The house is owned by Jackson City Councilor Charles Tillman, who represents Ward 5 in West Jackson. Tillman reportedly owns 65 homes in this neighborhood.
Tillman, who once served on the Keep Jackson Beautiful Commission and is the former chair of the Jackson Budget Committee, currently serves as vice chair of the city’s Water Ad Hoc Committee.
Tillman said he has been aware of the problems plaguing the water system since joining the council in 2005. He said there has been no city council meeting as it has been somewhat unmentioned.
“It’s as if the problem is bigger than this city,” Brooks said.
Tillman agreed. Although the city must do its part, he said he feels that partnership is the only way forward on the issue.
“We need a system from the provincial government, the state government and the federal government,” he said. “When we are in need, this is what the government is seeking – to take care of the needy.”
Tillman, who has been investing in Jackson properties since the late 1960s, said he uses his own staff to replace pipes in all the homes he buys before he leases them out. He estimated that 35 of his homes were now full.
He said a one-bedroom home could cost anywhere between $ 1,500 to $ 2,000 to return the tubes.
He said that there were no problems with household plumbing in those homes, but that city communications did cause problems. Some of his tenants have told him for years that they feel that since Jackson is a predominantly black city, state officials just don’t care about them.
Tillman said there’s a chance their ideas have weight when you look at where the state has chosen to invest in the city in the past.
“Other than (the Mississippi State Capitol) where they are located, the state fairgrounds, and possibly some other parts of the city, the rest of the city – which is a minority in the first place – is not getting the attention we need,” he said.
Tillman said he’s been advocating for water regime changes for years, but he knows the problem won’t go away overnight. New studies of the entire system must be done and he knows it won’t be easy – or cheap.
He said, “Just as my dad used to always say, if you were to pardon the expression, it would take a large chunk of the money.” “We have studies on the shelves, but if we want to pursue this issue, we need an update to see what we’re dealing with from the start.”
Contributing: Justin Vicore, Mississippi Clarion Ledger.
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