JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Fewer than 5,000 water customers were still without service Friday afternoon in Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson — a development a top official called “positive progress” for the city of 160,000, where some residents have been without water for three weeks.
“It’s been a good day, and we want to continue this trend through the weekend,” Public Works Director Charles Williams said during a Friday news conference.
Williams said almost 42,000 city water customers have now had their water restored. He said he hopes to see service restored to most customers in Jackson by Monday.
Resident Nita Smith and her mother were still without water Friday, marking three weeks since they first lost service.
Smith’s mother has diabetes and doesn’t drive. She’s had to help her mother and the other older people on her street get access to water to clean themselves and flush toilets.
“I feel like the city of Jackson put its residents under a lot of unnecessary stress,” she said Friday. “It’s very scary to know that you don’t have any water.”
Smith said she’s hopeful that with the progress the city has made in recent days, they’ll see water service restored soon.
Jeff Good, the co-owner of three Jackson restaurants, had been without water at two of his businesses for more than two weeks. Finally, one got water back Thursday. The other got it Friday.
“WE WILL OPEN SATURDAY MORNING FOR BREAKFAST!” he posted Friday on the Facebook page for Broad Street Bakery and Cafe. “After 17 days without water, we are thankful to announce we are finally reopening on Saturday morning.”
The water shortage in Jackson occurred after a winter storm passed through the region three weeks ago, freezing machinery at the water treatment plant. When it began to thaw, dozens of water mains broke.
The outage left people in the majority-Black city, where close to 30% of residents live in poverty, scrambling to find water to flush toilets, bathe and drink. The National Guard was called in to assist at water distribution sites, where people waited for hours in lines of vehicles to fill buckets and bowls with water.
A key focus to recovery has been filling the system’s water tanks. Williams said earlier in the week that fish, tree limbs and other debris have clogged screens where water moves from a reservoir into the treatment plant. That caused pressure to drop for the entire water system.
Williams said Friday the storage tanks were filling up. He said after 48 hours of consistent water flow, the city can start sampling the water to see about lifting the boil water notice, which has been in effect since Feb. 16.
City workers are still repairing water main breaks. Around 70 have been patched during the last three weeks, according to a news release.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said that the water crisis has been caused in part because of decades of neglect regarding the city’s aging infrastructure. Parts of Jackson’s water system are a century old, he said.
A major factor impacting the city’s ability to update its system has been a rapidly declining tax base due to white flight. Jackson’s tax base began crumbling decades ago, starting after the integration of public schools. The city was 60% white in 1970, according to U.S. census data. In 2021, it is more than 80% Black.
Voters in 2014 overwhelmingly approved an extra 1% sales tax for infrastructure repairs, but the $15 million a year raised is only a fraction of what Jackson needs. Lumumba said close to $2 billion is required to modernize its water system.
On Wednesday, Lumumba penned a letter to Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and other state and federal leaders asking for $47 million in state and federal funding to begin repairing the water system.
“These improvements are critical to our efforts to ensure that our residents and businesses are not deprived of clean water again,” he wrote.
Lumumba said Friday that government officials have been talking about a national infrastructure package for a while, but not enough action has been taken.
“The time for talk is done,” he told The Associated Press. “You know, it’s over with. We have to really, you know, bring it into fruition and get the money to where the rubber meets the road, and I think that not only do we need to talk about that infrastructure package, but we have to talk about its direct pipeline to the places that need it most.”
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.