Jackson Mayor Demands Help After Month-Long Water Crisis Amid Pandemic, Racism, Broken Infrastructure

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Residents in Jackson, Mississippi, have been facing a water crisis over the last five weeks, with many people lacking reliable access to clean drinking water after deadly February winter storms caused pipes and water mains to burst. While water delivery has largely been restored, “boil water” orders remain in effect for most people. The city estimates it could cost $2 billion to fix the city’s water system. The crisis in Jackson, which is 82% Black, highlights how climate catastrophe threatens much of the nation’s aging infrastructure. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba says while the city “contributes millions of dollars” in tax revenue to Mississippi each year, state leaders have refused to help and left the city to deal with the crisis by itself.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Jackson, Mississippi, where residents are facing two public health crises: the COVID pandemic and almost no clean drinking water for more than a month. On the pandemic front, Mississippi has become the second state in the nation to open up vaccine eligibility to all residents over age 16. Twenty percent of adults in Mississippi has received at least one dose of a vaccine. Public health experts are urging residents to keep wearing masks, even though the state’s Republican governor has lifted the statewide mask mandate, and to regularly wash their hands — something that’s been hard to do for the past month in Jackson, the state’s capital, which has gone five weeks without safe drinking water.

The deadly February winter storm that left most of Texas without power for days also devastated other Southern states. In Jackson, the freezing temperatures burst pipes and water mains, leaving most of Jackson without reliable access to running water. While water delivery has largely been restored, “boil water” orders remain in effect for most residents.

The crisis highlights how climate change threatens much of the nation’s aging infrastructure. For Jackson, there are no easy solutions. The city estimates it could cost $2 billion to fix the city’s water system, but Jackson is a poor city in the poorest state in the country. The city is 82% Black, while the state Legislature is majority white. White politicians have openly suggested Jackson’s problems are because of its Black leadership. Mississippi’s Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann criticized Jackson’s handling of the crisis by saying, quote, “You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration, he did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?” Kane Ditto was Jackson’s last white mayor.

Donna Ladd of the Jackson Free Press recently wrote, quote, “Make no mistake, the fact that low-income Jacksonians are living amid the stench of toilets that won’t flush is a direct legacy of white-supremacist thinking at the state level, not the failure of a few bill collectors in the city to collect on enough delinquent customers.”

We go now to Jackson, Mississippi, where we’re joined by Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. He has served as mayor since 2017. His father, Chokwe Lumumba, also briefly served as mayor before dying unexpectedly in 2014 eight months into his first term.

Mayor, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! Your city is facing a massive crisis — two. Of course, you’re dealing, like the whole country, with the coronavirus pandemic. And at the same time, you haven’t had clean drinking water for a month. Can you explain what’s happening and what needs to be done?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Yes. First, Amy, thank you for having me again, and thank you for lifting up this issue.

What we suffered after the two winter storms — and I need to make certain that I clarify that, that we had two consecutive storms that took place, leaving us in prolonged low temperatures in the city of Jackson, historically low temperatures in the city of Jackson. And what it did was it created complications getting water into our treatment facility. The raw water screens are at the inception point of the water treatment facility, in which they froze. And because we couldn’t get water in, it complicated or made it impossible for us to clean water and get water out, leaving our distribution system compromised. And as consumption was high, it drained many of the tanks across the city. And our PSI — our water treatment facility operates off of hydraulics. The PSI went down to 37. We need our PSI at about 90 in order to distribute water throughout the system.

This is on account of an aged, aging infrastructure of a legacy city, money which has not been contributed over time, while the city of Jackson contributes millions of dollars each and every year, and has done so since Kane Ditto, before Kane Ditto, and continues to do so. What we have not is had a state leadership that identifies this as not just a city of Jackson problem, but a ongoing and shared problem of not only the city, but the state. And I’d like to just emphasize that in a few ways, if I could, Amy.

One, the city of Jackson is the largest city by a factor of three, the highest contributor to revenue to the state. We are the state capital, which means that many of our properties are untaxable. We do not get payment in lieu of taxes. Furthermore, we provide water to state facilities at no cost to the state of Mississippi. So, if they just paid their water bill, the city of Jackson would be in a lot better position.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Mayor, I wanted to ask you — for the brief time that your father was in office, one of the things that he was praised for was attempting to address the infrastructure problem. As I recall, he tried to institute a new tax to provide better infrastructure services. What’s been the problem between the — you mentioned one aspect, the state not paying its water bill — but in terms of being able to implement upgrades of the system?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, I think that you would have to understand the comprehensive infrastructure problem in the city of Jackson. The 1% sales tax generates about $13 million annually. And when I said $2 billion, I didn’t say $2 billion for the water system; I said comprehensively. The way we know that is that the EPA has estimated that our wastewater problem is about a billion dollars, where sewage is coming up in people’s yards and in their backyards and in ditches, and those issues. So, that’s one. That’s before we get to the drinking water, which we see the crisis that we have on our hands after the February storms. That doesn’t get to the drainage. We suffered a 30-year flood just recently, this past — in 2020. So, that doesn’t get to the issue of how drainage is — how people address that. And that doesn’t get to roads and bridges and all of these things, all these parts of our infrastructure that our residents rely on. So, $13 million is just insufficient to meet the need.

The city of Jackson was not ill-prepared based on the winter storms; we were ill-equipped. And so, this is because resources are often stripped from the city of Jackson. Not only are we not met with a consistent plan in order to support the city that supports the state of Mississippi; we don’t enjoy the commensurate support that the city provides the state. But also, we’ve had resources stripped away from us. You referenced the conversation, or you referenced the statements of Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann. As we have lifted up these issues year after year in our legislative agenda, understanding that it’s not a matter of if these infrastructure systems will fail, but when, he redirected the conversation to talk about the state’s effort to take over the city of Jackson’s airport, which is a profitable institution that we rely on year after year.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how difficult has it been for the residents of your city to deal with the water situation while at the same time contending with the issues around the COVID pandemic?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, as you can imagine, our residents have made every endeavor to be as patient as they could. But the frustrations are high. You know, as you can imagine, when people want to drink water, cook with water, not only bathe but get rid of waste, people being concerned about not only the safety precautions of the pandemic but also taking medications, simple things like that, that they anticipate that water will help serve the need to do those things, it has been extremely difficult.

And so, you know, I do want to lift up the many people across the city, individuals, businesses, people from around the country, who have stood in the gap, rallied around the city of Jackson to distribute water. Each one of us have spent countless hours out making certain that we got water to the elderly, to the immobile, to the disabled. And so, while there has been great frustration around these issues, these are issues that the residents of Jackson have dealt with for quite some time, and so they’re very familiar, they’re intimately familiar, with the history of divestment, the history of a lack of investment from the state, very familiar with the woes and troubles of our water infrastructure and our infrastructure in a comprehensive way, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Calandra Davis, a policy analyst at Hope Policy Institute. She has been delivering bottled water and food to those without water supply.

CALANDRA DAVIS: The communities that was hardest hit by this water crisis are in South and West Jackson, which, again, are the predominantly or majority Black and Brown communities in the city. So, again, it just shows that it wasn’t just another bad weather day for us, that this has been, again, years of neglect to the majority Black and Brown parts of the city, also just another example of how structural racism works.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain how people are getting water? I mean, if people can’t afford to buy water, how do they get to places where water is, or have to go to pick it up? One older woman described the only thing she could get was little bottled water. This is to keep themselves clean. It’s not just for drinking.

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, you know, along with the complication of a water treatment facility essentially crashing during the storm, we also had the challenge for several days because roads were iced over and the transportation or distribution system was interrupted on our highways. And so, it became complicated because the local stores didn’t have water anymore. It became complicated because — it was increasingly challenging because trucks could not come and deliver water. But we were able to manage through that and set up distribution sites across the city. The state National Guard did set up tanks around the city for non-potable water, for people to come with containers and utilize. As I mentioned, you had several businesses, several individuals, that stood in the gap in order to support people in that way.

I do want to lift up the issue that Ms. Davis spoke to: the equity issues. You know, it is not a system where you turn on water from one area of town or another area of town. The system distributes water through the lines that were laid, actually, more than a hundred years ago. The problem is an issue of equity. We just have to understand when the take took place. The take happened, or the issues of people who are in poverty or don’t have the resources not being able to get the water, is because they live in areas that were not valued as high or as more desirable by those who had money. Those who had money built homes near — closest to the resources, closer to the water treatment facilities. Therefore, when water is redistributed through the distribution system, through the lines, they are the ones who get water sooner. When you get to South and West Jackson, those are the areas furthest away from the plant. Those are the areas at higher elevations across the city, which means that the water not only has to travel far, but it has to travel high. It has to go up those high elevation points.

And so, you know, we must lift up not only how we build sustainable infrastructure, but how we do it in an equitable way, looking at these issues and looking at how we address those areas through city planning. And city planning is never neutral. City planning is not by mistake. We have to be able to make sure that we do this in a way that creates dignity for all residents across our city.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mayor, on this issue of equitable distribution of resources and services, years ago, your father pioneered the Jackson-Kush Plan, an attempt to empower African Americans in the majority area, geographical areas of the South. How do you assess the progress that’s been made, beginning with his administration, but then going through yours, in terms of spreading this idea of the equitable distribution of resources?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, that is a movement that is ongoing. And we have many successes to point to in that regard. What our goal is, is to democratize power, understanding that issues of infrastructure, that we need to be able to connect, pothole to pothole, in community to community, so people in Jackson, Mississippi, understand why there’s a community that looks just like theirs in Jamaica, Queens, New York, in Gary, Indiana, or Detroit, Michigan. In that process of fixing that pothole, in that process of how we repair our infrastructure in terms of water, what we ultimately learn is that the pothole was never your problem in the first place. Your problem is that you don’t control the decision-making process that leads to the pothole being fixed.

And so, we do that by having people’s assemblies where we engage community. We do that by participatory budgeting, understanding that the budget of the city is a moral document, and if we don’t listen to the community, listen to what the community needs and scratch where they may be itching, then it reflects what our values are as a community. We’ve done that through making sure that we extend a model which is just and transparent as we look at the issues of public safety and policing, not only making sure that we have a police ID task force populated by the community, so that they can work alongside the police department and understand how public safety must look. And so, we’ve done that in a number of ways. We’re are looking at that in terms of economic mobility and economic development in the community, understanding that we want to be a business-friendly city, but we also understand that it has to be a reciprocal relationship. And so, we lift up cooperative business models, as well, so that we can learn how we can fill the gaps.

Even as we have this conversation about water and the issue of water over the last month or so, the reality is that every effort in order to support the infrastructure of the city of Jackson has been undertaken by the residents, by the people, more than the state itself. The decision to tax themselves more in order to help the infrastructure was supported over 90% by the residents. The state isn’t filling in the gap or standing in the gap when people decide to tax themselves more. Those are people taking the issue in their own hands, realizing that we are who we’ve been waiting on. And so, we should be met in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor, very quickly, Mississippi has become the second state in the nation to offer vaccines to everyone above 16. At the same time, the mask mandate has been lifted. The significance of this for your city, for Jackson?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Well, it’s a contradictory message, and I believe that it is dangerous. While we are happy that we can expand the opportunity for people to be vaccinated, every health professional that I have listened to, all the health professionals we listen to nationally, have indicated that it is just too soon in order to lift the mask mandate.

The city of Jackson, we execute our COVID policy based on science, not politics. And so, we will maintain our mask mandate in the city of Jackson. However, the state’s decision to do otherwise still puts us in a compromised position, because we’re not only the capital city, we’re the capital of healthcare. What that means is, is as surrounding cities may not issue the mask mandate, when their residents, unfortunately, fall victim to the virus, they will overburden our hospitals in the city of Jackson, leaving not only our residents in greater danger, but those individuals who seek hospitalization or seek medical attention for a myriad of other issues, even outside of COVID. And so, I think that it is contradictory. I think that it is confusing. And I think that it is ill-timed.

AMY GOODMAN: Chokwe Antar Lumumba, we thank you so much for being with us, mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, longtime activist.

Next up, Deb Haaland is being sworn in as secretary of the interior, becoming the first Native American to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet. We’ll look at what she faces when it comes to the legacy of uranium mines. Stay with us.

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