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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Edward Helmore in New York and agencies

Jackson mayor: residents face ‘longer road ahead’ before safe water is restored

A volunteer carries bottles of water at a water distribution site as the city of Jackson, Mississippi.
A volunteer carries bottles of water at a water distribution site as the city of Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters

The mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, where 150,000 people are still without safe drinking water after an infrastructure failure, said on Sunday residents face a “much longer road ahead” before services are fully restored in the majority Black city.

Speaking to ABC’s This Week, Chokwe Antar Lumumba said there had been improvements, with water pressure restored to a majority of residents.

But he said the state capital was “still in an emergency – will be in an emergency even as the water is restored to every home and even as the boil water notice is lifted because that is the fragile state of our water treatment facility”.

City officials said later water pressure had been restored to most customers.

“All of Jackson should now have pressure and most are now experiencing normal pressure,” the city said in a news release. “Multiple tanks are approaching full. We no longer have any tanks at low levels. All of Jackson should now have pressure and most are now experiencing normal pressure.”

The crisis has, however, been blamed on decades of neglect that came to a head last month, after torrential rains and flooding of the Pearl river exacerbated problems at one of two water treatment plants, leading to a drop in pressure throughout the city. Residents were already under a boil-water order after pumps failed.

Most Jackson residents, Lumumba said, remain under boil orders, unable to consume the water.

“That makes it difficult with just the quality of life and the daily tasks that we become accustomed to,” he said.

Lumumba also warned that “safe, drinkable, reliable, sustainable and an equitable water treatment facility is a much longer road ahead” and said the precariousness of the water system remained.

“Even when we are not under a boil water notice, it’s not a matter of if these systems will fail, but when these systems will fail,” he said.

The near-collapse of the Jackson water system prompted emergency declarations from Joe Biden and the Republican governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves.

Biden said: “We have offered every single thing available in Mississippi. The governor has to act. There’s money to deal with this problem. We have given him everything there is to offer.”

The crisis has become symbolic not only of the poor state of infrastructure in many US cities but of the effects of climate change. Lumumba said colder winters, hotter summers and heavier rains were “taking a toll”.

Bubbling beneath the surface of the crisis are disputes between a Democratic city government and the Republican governor and state legislature. Lumumba has accused Reeves of ignoring Jackson’s problems. The governor has said they stem from mismanagement at city level. In April, Lumumba called the state legislature “paternalistic and racist”.

That was two months after the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Jackson’s system violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. A year earlier, a fire caused all five pumps at one treatment plant to be knocked out of service. Higher than acceptable lead levels have been found in Jackson’s water.

On Sunday, Lumumba said he was less focused on the causes of the crisis “and more focused on the immediate and near-term of resolving this challenge”.

“I don’t think that it profits me or the residents of Jackson for me to take jabs” at Reeves or the legislature, he said.

Residents rued the failure to address Jackson’s problems. In an interview with the Associated Press, one restaurant owner said he opened in the Farish Street Historic District hoping to help usher in renewed prosperity. But business had dried up.

“The numbers are very low for lunch,” John Tierre said. Customers, he said, were “probably taking their business to the outskirts where they don’t have water woes”.

Bobbie Fairley, who owns Magic Hands Hair Design, said she lost appointments because she needs high water pressure to rinse clients’ hair.

“That’s a big burden,” she said. “I can’t afford that. I can’t afford that at all.”

Others pointed to a pattern of adversity stemming from natural disasters and policy decisions that led to the long-term flight of wealthier white residents.

“It’s punishment for Jackson because it was open to the idea that people should be able to attend public schools and that people should have access to public areas without abuse,” Maati Jone Primm, owner of Marshall’s Music and Bookstore, told the AP. “As a result of that, we have people who ran away to the suburbs. For decades this is a been a malignant attack, not benign.”

The water crisis has exacerbated tensions. Last week, it was claimed on social media that a water tanker outside the governor’s mansion was there to supply Reeves. The tanker was actually for the headquarters of Trustmark Bank. A spokesperson said it did not contain drinking water but was back-up for sanitary needs.

On Sunday, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), Deanne Criswell, side-stepped political questions, saying her focus was on distributing bottled water and helping increase water pressure, so Jackson residents could at least flush toilets and use faucets.

“The longer term and the midterm are about how long it’s going to take to actually make [the water] safe to drink,” Criswell told CNN’s State of the Union. “I think that we have a lot more to learn about what it’s going to take to get that plant up and running.”

Criswell said it would take time for Fema to understand the extent of the problem before they it could estimate how long it would take to fix.

“Everybody is focused on the right thing right now, and they’re focused on making sure that we are addressing the immediate needs and putting a plan in place for the long-term needs,” she said.

Criswell acknowledged that Jackson is one example of a larger crisis.

“We have a lot of issues with our infrastructure around the nation,” she said.

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