In the months since the most recent water woes began in Jackson, Mississippi, national attention has died down, donations have dwindled, and volunteers have been hard to come by.
Jackson’s already-frail water system suffered a dayslong outage over the summer, in a crisis that sparked national outrage and called attention to the decades of water struggles in the city of 150,000 residents, nearly 83% of them Black. Thanks to donations and the national attention, grassroots organizers were able to distribute hundreds of cases of bottled water to panicked residents after the O.B. Curtis Water Plant failed in August.
Now, some five months later, organizers say there aren’t many resources to go around to residents still in need.
“The outpouring of help that took place in August, it’s way different now. I guess people burned out,” said Gino Womack, program director of the community organization Operation Good. “There are so many mixed messages about who’s to blame, what to blame, but at the end of the day, it’s the people who suffer. There’s still a fight to give people this basic necessity.”
At one point over the summer, Operation Good was giving out 700 cases of water to long lines of Jackson residents in a single day. But donated water and funds were “depleted quickly,” and the organization hasn’t been able to distribute such a high volume of water in a single day since, Womack added.
Jackson has one of the oldest water systems in the country, with authorities routinely directing residents to boil their water for safety, and residents often reporting brown water, leaking sewage and low water pressure. Since the water outage over the summer, residents have largely relied on bottled water for eating and drinking — and some for bathing as well. As of Tuesday, there were four boil-water notices for areas across Jackson, and notices had ended in four other areas in the last week. And the city is working to address elevated levels of lead in drinking water in the Jackson area, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health.
Still, promises of aid gave organizers some hope during the summer outage. Mississippi was set to receive $429 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to fix its water and wastewater systems over the next five years, mostly in loans and grants provided through the Environmental Protection Agency. But, in October, the EPA announced it would investigate whether Jackson had handled federal funds in a way that discriminated against its residents.
The investigation came in response to a federal complaint the NAACP filed last September, in which the group alleged that Mississippi officials had “all but assured” a drinking water calamity in Jackson by depriving the state’s capital of badly needed funds to upgrade its infrastructure.
“Jackson’s majority-Black population has been repeatedly ignored, spurned, or ridiculed, resulting in the most recent water access inequity and crisis,” the NAACP said.
Months before the water outage in August, residents endured a cold snap in 2021, with extremely low temperatures freezing pipes and leaving many without water. And last month, residents were yet again under a boil notice after a winter storm and broken pipes left thousands without running water.
Now, Autumn Brown, an organizer with the Cooperation Jackson community group, said it’s like city and state officials “don’t want to help Jackson.”
“What I’d like to see is us being able to get the resources we need to make the city a better place and make it livable for the people who are here,” Brown said.
Cooperation Jackson was also once able to distribute hundreds of cases of water each day. Now it is only able to provide water at occasional events in the city. Instead, it mainly operates a hotline in which residents can call and request the little water the group does have access to, or be directed to community centers and churches that have enough water to distribute.
This is all done by just a handful of volunteers, Brown said.
“Whenever people hear somebody’s giving out water, the lines are still huge and long,” Brown said. “People still have needs, and the community is trying to meet it as soon as possible, but we don’t have much help from our government sources.”