Mississippi governor declares state of emergency as end of Jackson water crisis is nowhere in sight

JACKSON, Miss. — Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency Tuesday, saying a water crisis in Mississippi’s largest city threatens “critical needs” and has no end in sight.

While residents are accustomed to water challenges, the current shortage of safe running water is particularly dangerous, he said.

“The is a very different situation from a boil water notice — which is also a serious situation which the residents of Jackson have become tragically numb to,” Reeves said in a statement.

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

An SUV rests in floodwaters in northeast Jackson, Miss., on Monday.
An SUV rests in floodwaters in northeast Jackson, Miss., on Monday. Rogelio V. Solis / AP

On Tuesday night, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration in the state, freeing up federal resources to help manage the crisis.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said he hopes the emergency will spur various levels of government to address the city’s deteriorating water treatment infrastructure.

“The city of Jackson is grateful for the support that we are now receiving from the state,” Lumumba told reporters Tuesday.

“We’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to the Jackson water crisis. I have said on multiple occasions that it’s a not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail.”

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will take the lead in providing bottled water, Reeves said.

“Replacing our largest city’s infrastructure of running water with human distribution is a massively complicated logistical task,” he said. “We need to provide it for up to 180,000 people — for an unknown period of time.”

Lumumba declared a water system emergency Monday evening after flooding from the Pearl River disrupted a major water processing facility.

Lumumba, who didn’t set a timeline Tuesday for full restoration, insisted service has been improving in the past 24 hours.

“It’s steady. It’s gone up since yesterday … in terms of the number of people with water,” said Lumumba, adding that the best gains came overnight when few were awake and using water.

Image:
A Jackson firefighter puts cases of bottled water in a resident’s SUV on Aug. 18 as part of the city’s response to long-standing water system problems. Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Jackson, a city of 150,000 residents, nearly 83% of them Black, has long been plagued by infrastructure issues that have made clean, reliable water a challenge.

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

The city is seeking to hire retired employees for part-time work, up to 20 hours a week, so as not to violate terms of their pension packages, Lumumba said.

“The effort is ongoing … to augment our staff,” he said.

The capital city is home to Jackson State University, where the historically Black school’s football team is struggling to prepare for its coming season opener because of the water crisis.

The team’s coach, former NFL star Deion Sanders, said the program is in “crisis mode.”

“We don’t have water. Water means we don’t have air conditioning. We can’t use toilets. We have no water. Therefore, we don’t have ice,” Sanders said on his Instagram page.  “So right now, we are operating in crisis mode.”

Sanders, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said he is trying to place his student-athletes in hotels that have running water, before they hit the road for their game against Florida A&M on Sunday.

The outspoken coach insisted the water crisis won’t stop his team from being “who we desire to be, and that’s dominant.” 

“The devil is a lie,” Sanders added. “He ain’t going to get us today.” 

Bracey Harris reported from Jackson and David K. Li and Phil McCausland from New York City.

Bracey Harris is a national reporter for NBC News, based in Jackson, Mississippi. 

David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.

Phil McCausland

contributed

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