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Drinking water crisis in Jackson, Miss., continues as residents rely on bottled water

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Jackson, Miss., thousands of people are desperately searching for water. The city's treatment plant failed Monday after historic rain and flooding led to a drop in water pressure. President Biden has declared a disaster, which triggers federal aid, and the state is sending in the National Guard. But many residents are frustrated because this is a disaster that just keeps repeating.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden is in Jackson and joins us now. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: OK, so this is Day 3 since - what? - more than 180,000 people were told that their tap water was dangerous or they lost their water entirely.

LUDDEN: Yeah.

CHANG: What is the situation as of now?

LUDDEN: You know, city and state officials continue to say they are working on it, but there's just no firm timeline here. And so, you know, city and aid groups have been handing out water around Jackson, you know, until a fuller-scale distribution gets set up, but the demand is a lot more than the supply. I found Beatrice Gilmore in a long line of cars wrapped around a Walmart parking lot today. She was so excited because she's been in other lines, but the water ran out a few cars ahead of hers, and this time she was one of the last to get it. She got one case for her and her sister.

BEATRICE GILMORE: I'm going to try to use a little for the drinking and for - take a sponge bath (laughter) 'cause you can't do it for nothing there. And a little cooking - as much as we can - and that's about it.

LUDDEN: What have you been eating?

GILMORE: Canned food, heating up stuff and, you know, just stuff where you can't use a lot of water.

LUDDEN: And so you have no water.

GILMORE: Just a little pressure water, and that's it - pretty - yeah, pretty much no water.

LUDDEN: And is it cloudy or brown?

GILMORE: Sort of brownish, and it's just awful.

LUDDEN: Gilmore says she won't even give the water to her dogs - although the mayor today did say people can bathe in it.

CHANG: OK. Well, now this lack of water has also shut down schools and businesses. How are people even coping with that?

LUDDEN: Yeah, it's a lot. I met Ayesha Stevenson in the water line. Unfortunately, she had just gotten there a bit too late. She has a 5- and 7-year-old who are now home doing remote learning. And, you know, schools are boiling water to make breakfast and lunch for students to pick up. The poverty rate in Jackson is 25%. A lot of families really rely on those meals. Stevenson is a cook at a Waffle House, and that had to shut down because of this. She says it's her third day out of work without pay. And what's really frustrating for her is that, you know, just early last year, there was another water crisis after a historic freeze. She says she never really went back to tap water after that.

AYESHA STEVENSON: No. Uh-uh. I can't use that. My kids get sick fast. I can't - mmm mmm.

LUDDEN: So you use bottled water all the time?

STEVENSON: Yes.

LUDDEN: You never went back to the tap since then?

STEVENSON: Mmm mmm.

LUDDEN: Wow.

STEVENSON: I can't even picture myself drinking it. No, mmm mmm.

LUDDEN: That must be expensive.

STEVENSON: It is. You go broke buying food and water all the time. Yeah, it's very expensive.

LUDDEN: You know, so she's pretty mad...

CHANG: Yeah.

LUDDEN: ...That families like hers are having to shoulder this really long-standing burden.

CHANG: Absolutely. Is there any hope that this might be the crisis that actually leads to larger solutions?

LUDDEN: Well, you know, there is a lot of tension over this long-standing problem and who's to blame for it, but we have heard state and city officials say they're working together. Basically, you've got a city that took a major economic hit after schools desegregated in the '70s, and many white families just left. The mayor says the tax base is just too small to pay for all this. Now, there could be potentially tens of millions of dollars coming in because of pandemic aid and the infrastructure law that Congress passed. But to really fix what's wrong here - this aging, leaky water system - the mayor says you're going to need a billion dollars or more.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jennifer Ludden in Jackson, Miss. Thank you so much, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.