In Jackson, the water is back, but the crisis remains

Jackson, Miss. – In mid-September, Howard Sanders drove down a potholed street in a white Cadillac carrying a water bottle on his way to a house in a rundown neighborhood in Ward 3, which he called a “war zone.”

Sanders, director of marketing and outreach for Central Mississippi Health Services, was then greeted at the door by Johnny Jones. Since Jones’ hip surgery about a month ago, the 74-year-old has gotten around using a walker and hasn’t been able to get to any of the city’s water distribution sites.

Jackson’s regular water problems became so dire in late August that President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency: flooding and problems with water treatment facilities shut down the majority-black city’s water supply. Although water pressure returned and a boil-water advisory was lifted in mid-September, the problems were not over.

Bottled water is still a way of life. The city’s roughly 150,000 residents must be careful — make sure they don’t rinse their toothbrushes with tap water, cover their mouths when they shower, rethink cooking plans, or budget for gas so they can drive around in search of water. Many residents buy bottled water on top of paying their water bills, which means less money for everything else. For Jackson’s poorest and oldest residents, who can’t leave their homes or pick up water cases, avoiding questionable water becomes even more difficult.

“We’re shocked, we’re hurt,” Sanders said.

Jackson’s water problems are a manifestation of a deep health crisis in Mississippi, where residents have chronic diseases. It is the state with the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate.

“Water is a window into the neglect that many people have experienced for most of their lives,” says Richard Mizell Jr., a historian of medicine at the University of Houston. “Consuming bottled water for the rest of your life is not sustainable.”

But Jackson has no choice, says Dr. Robert Smith. He founded Central Mississippi Health Services in 1963 as an outgrowth of his work on civil rights, and the organization now operates four free clinics in the Jackson area. He often sees patients with multiple health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart problems. And unsafe water can lead to deaths in people who do their dialysis at home, immunocompromised people or babies who drink formula, Smith said.

In a photo, Dr. Robert Smith stands outside the Central Mississippi Health Services building.
Dr. Robert Smith founded Central Mississippi Health Services in 1963 as an outgrowth of his work on civil rights.(Renuka Raisam/KHN)

Residents filed a lawsuit this month against the city and private engineering firms responsible for the city’s water system, claiming they have suffered a host of health problems — dehydration, malnutrition, lead poisoning, e.g. Coli exposure, hair loss, skin rashes and digestive problems – results from contaminated water. The lawsuit alleges elevated lead levels in Jackson’s water, a finding confirmed by the Mississippi State Department of Health.

While Jackson’s current water situation is dire, many communities of color, low-income communities and those with a large share of non-native English speakers also have unsafe water, said Eric Olson, Natural Resources’ senior strategic director of health and food. Defense Council. These communities are often the victims of violations of safe drinking water laws, according to a study by the nonprofit advocacy group. And it takes longer for those communities to return to compliance with the law, Olson said.

The federal infrastructure bill passed last year includes $50 billion to improve the nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems. Although Mississippi will receive $429 million of that funding over five years, Jackson must wait — and fight — for his share.

And communities often spend years dealing with chronic illness and trauma. Five years after the water crisis began in Flint, Michigan, about 20% of the city’s adult residents had clinical depression and about a quarter had post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a recent study published in JAMA.

Jones, like many locals, hasn’t trusted Jackson’s water for decades. That distrust — and the constant vigilance, extra costs and hassles — add a layer of stress.

“It’s very stressful,” Jones said.

For the city’s poorest communities, the water crisis is on top of existing pressures, including crime and unstable housing, said Dr. Obie McNair, chief operating officer of Central Mississippi Health Services. “It’s additive.”

Over time, that effort and coordination takes a toll, said Mauda Monger, chief operating officer of My Brother’s Keeper, a community health equity nonprofit in Jackson. Chronic stress and inability to access care can exacerbate chronic illness and lead to premature birth, all of which are prevalent in Jackson. “Poor health outcomes don’t happen over a short period of time,” he said.

For Jackson’s health clinics, the water crisis has reshaped their role. They have been providing clean water to the city’s most needy people to prevent health complications from drinking or bathing in dirty water.

“We want to be a part of the solution,” McNair said.

Terrence Shirley, CEO of the Community Health Centers Association of Mississippi, said the state’s community health centers have a long history of filling service gaps for Mississippi’s poorest residents. “Before, there was a time when community health centers would actually go out and dig wells for their patients.”

Central Mississippi Health Services had been providing water to residents about twice a month since February 2021, when a winter storm left Jackson without water for weeks.

But in August, things got so bad again that Sanders urged listeners to a local radio show to call the center if they didn’t get water. Many Jackson residents cannot visit the city’s distribution sites due to work schedules, lack of transportation or physical disabilities.

“Now, all of a sudden, I’m a water person,” Sanders said.

One photo shows Thelma Kinney Cornelius next to a table filled with water bottles in her garage
Thelma Kinney Cornelius stores drinking water in her garage from Howard Sanders of Central Mississippi Health Services.(Renuka Raisam/KHN)

Thelma Kinney Cornelius, 72, first heard about Sanders’ water supply from his radio appearances. He has not been able to drive since being treated for bowel cancer in 2021. He rarely cooks these days. But a few Sundays ago he made an exception, going through a case of bottled water to make a pot of rice and peas.

“It’s a lot of consistency to get into that routine,” Cornelius said. “It’s hard.”

On the day Jackson’s boil-water advisory was lifted, Sanders was diagnosed with a hernia, likely from picking up a heavy case of water, he said. Still, the next day, Sanders drove around the Verden Addition neighborhood with other volunteers, knocking on people’s doors and asking if they needed water.

He said he has no plans to cut off water supplies as Jackson residents continue to deal with long-term fallout from the summer crisis. Residents are still concerned about lead or other harmful contaminants lurking in the water

“It’s like a little third-world country here,” Sanders said. “In all honesty, we’ll probably be at it for years to come.”

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