Jackson, Mississippi, is without reliable running water after river rises to dangerous level

Phil Helsel and Stephanie Gosk
Hinds County Emergency Management Operations deputy director Tracy Funches, right, and operations coordinator Luke Chennault, wade through flood waters in northeast Jackson, Miss., Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, as they check water levels.
Rogelio V. Solis | AP

JACKSON, Miss. — The state's capital city was without a reliable water supply Monday after rain and flooding pushed the Pearl River to dangerous levels, officials said.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba declared a water system emergency Monday evening because of complications from the Pearl River flooding. He said issues at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant resulted in low or no water pressure for many residents.

"The water shortage is likely to last the next couple of days," the city said in a statement.

Jackson, the state's capital and largest city, had water problems even before the rain that prompted fears of floods from the Pearl River.

The city has been under a boil-water notice since last month because tests found a cloudy quality to city-supplied water that could hinder the disinfection process and lead to illness.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a lengthy report in 2020, outlining major shortfalls of Jackson's water system which included failure to replace lead pipes, faulty monitoring equipment and inadequate staffing.

The community's lack of reliable water has trickled down to even the most basic services such as drinking fountains at Whitten Middle School.

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"Out of order" signs have been posted on those fountains as long as anyone can remember, teacher George Stewart told NBC's "Nightly News with Lester Holt."

"I can't remember, I can't honestly remember" the last time fountains worked, Stewart said.

Gov. Tate Reeves said at a news conference Monday night that the city's water system was unable to produce enough water.

"Until it is fixed, it means we do not have reliable running water at scale," Reeves said. "It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets and to meet other critical needs."

Flooding in Jackson, a city of around 153,000, was less severe than had been feared after the state got record rainfall, officials said.

The Pearl River was forecast to remain at a little over 35 feet but begin a slow decrease Monday night, the National Weather Service said.

"The good news is, is that the water levels came in lower than projected," Lumumba said at a briefing earlier Monday, adding that at the time it was believed that water had entered only one home.

A view shows a flooded road near Pearl River following water discharges from Barnett Reservoir over the weekend, in Ridgeland, Mississippi, U.S. in this screen grab taken from a video August 29, 2022.
Reuters TV | via Reuters

But river water coming into what he said was an already "very fragile water treatment facility" meant it needed to be treated differently and resulted in a reduction in water going out into the system, he said.

"This is a citywide challenge that they are working to recover from," Lumumba said.

Reeves said there would be state emergency declarations in addition to the city's.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency would distribute water to residents, and the state would also be in charge of an effort to start emergency repairs and maintenance to get the water flowing again, Reeves said.

State Health Officer Daniel Edney said at a news conference: "The water is not safe to drink. I'd even say it's not safe to brush your teeth with — because we are not seeing adequate chlorination and an inability to consistently disinfect the water."

Residents should fully boil water for at least three minutes, he said.

Reeves said that the city's main water treatment facility had been "operating with zero redundancies," or backup systems, and that its main pumps had recently been damaged.

Jackson Public Schools said that all classes would shift to virtual learning and that there would be no in-person instruction starting Tuesday because of the water shortage.

This water shortage will have a severe impact on students who do no respond well to online learning, teachers said.

"We have many students, considered some of our most vulnerable students, who virtual learning does not help them at all," said Stewart, president of the Jackson Association of Educators.

Stephanie Gosk reported from Jackson, Mississippi, Phil Helsel from Los Angeles and David K. Li from New York City.