Jackson’s water crisis takes a toll on its youngest residents

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In February of this year, Mikel Bolden found herself waking her 5-year-old son and daughter at 4:50 each morning to load the car and drive the family to a friend’s home 30 minutes away in downtown Brandon. Once there, she unloaded the still sleepy children into the home, undressed them, and put them in the bath. She would then redress them, brush their teeth, and then repeat the process herself. The family would then load back into the car and drive back to Jackson where Bolden would drop the children at Ambition Prep, ten minutes from her Raymond Road apartment. The family, who lived in South Jackson, spent weeks without water. 

Bolden’s experience mimicked that of many parents across the Jackson area in February of 2021. During Valentine’s Day weekend of that year, a winter storm blanketed much of the South in ice and snow. Once the thaw began, Jackson residents found themselves without water in much of the city. The freezing temperatures had exacerbated an already fragile Jackson water system. As the snow melted, frozen slush from the Ross Barnett Reservoir caused frozen plant equipment at the O. B. Curtis facility and over 80 water main breaks across the city. The inadequate water pressure resulted in over 43,000 residents being placed under a boil water notice. The water system collapsed. 

“We technically didn’t have water for two months. It was all about trying to find water and then you get in line to get water that’s being offered but by the time you get to the front, there is no water,” Bolden said. “We got to a point where we had to melt ice and diluted with the little bottles of water that we had to try to clean it to even bathe in. You had no water to cook with so you had to go buy something to eat if places were open.”

Residents in several Jackson neighborhoods went weeks with no water at all. With no definitive timeline in sight, water distribution sites began to pop up across the metro area. Area grocery stores began to experience a shortage of bottled water as the need for safe, clean drinking water increased. As the city struggled to repair continuing leaks, Governor Tate Reeves suggested during a news conference that a state takeover of the Jackson water system may be in the near future. 

“Perhaps we should. Perhaps we ought to look at things and see what happens going forward,” said Reeves at the time.

Now more than 18 months later, residents of the City of Jackson have had little relief from fluctuating instances of little to no water pressure and boil water alerts and there has been no state takeover. 

“We have been on a boil water alert on and off for maybe about two years now,” said Dualia Howard. “Half of the time you didn’t know you were on a boil water alert if you didn’t watch the news and by the time you got a notification in the mail, it was over.”

Local schools have been heavily impacted by the effects of the water issues. The most recent water crisis caused schools to turn to virtual learning, forcing parents to stay home with their children or to pay for childcare. This had a particularly detrimental effect on low-income households. Schools in the city opting to remain open found themselves flushing toilets with water from buckets, covering water fountains to prevent students from drinking unsafe water, and stocking bathrooms with hand sanitizer. Athletic directors and coaches, struggling to keep some semblance of normalcy to their fall sport seasons, brought portable toilets and bottled water to stadiums where games continued despite no water pressure. Students of Forest Hill High School, whose doors remained closed longer than others, were bussed to other sites when in-person learning resumed. 

“The biggest challenge was the shift to virtual learning,” said Sherwin Johnson, Executive Director of Public and Media Relations for Jackson Public Schools. “Anytime that teachers have an unexpected interruption to lesson planning or the normal routine, it obviously sets things back. Although we are a one-to-one school district, virtual learning is not embedded into our day to day operations.”

The school buildings that Howard’s children attended were closed for several days. She was able to take them to work with her at a local insurance agency because of an understanding supervisor.

“My daughter has a computer so she was able to sit in an office and do virtual (learning). I was (also) able to set up my little children but it was an inconvenience,” she said. “I had to prepare snacks and lunches. I had to prepare things for the children to be comfortable. It was an inconvenience, but they’re my children.”

What is most frustrating for school leaders is that the water problem isn’t new. The city was placed under a boil water notice in July, even before torrential rain and subsequent flooding exacerbated the latest water crisis. Potholes are commonplace in the city where the underground pipe system dates back to the 1950s. Former mayor Tony Yarber asked the city to declare a state of emergency in part due to the city’s aging infrastructure in 2015, more than five years before last year’s winter storm prompted a flood of issues brought on by freezing temperatures, nearly four inches of snow, and two inches of sleet. Schools have weathered intermittent water woes as best they could but have felt the effects. The Guardian reported on research by the Mississippi Association of Educators, which found that more than half of schools closed at some point because of water issues in 2021. An April 2022 survey by MAE reported that 92% of residents surveyed reported a student in their family or neighborhood had experienced tap water issues at school.

“We started working on this back in April,” said Erica Jones, Mississippi Association of Educators (MAE) president. “We started noticing that the city was having issues with their water system so we started thinking about what the next steps would be. We started meeting with our local association about how we would be able to pivot if our schools had to go virtual.”

In early August, MAE published a policy paper outlining the problems they had identified and making recommendations for policymakers moving forward. Within days, the organization found themselves mobilizing to support teachers and students through another major water crisis. The event which happened just as school was starting sent the Jackson Public School District and other area schools scrambling to think of ways to best educate students without available water fountains, flushing toilets, or sinks for handwashing.

“We were looking forward to a year where we (would) have what we considered a normal restart of school but that didn’t happen due to the water crisis,” said Jones. “Educators were concerned about those students not being inside of the classroom and missing out on valuable classroom instruction. Not only were our students facing issues with water at home, but at school as well.”

Bolden’s children were out of school for nearly a week.

“They went to school on Monday but they didn’t go to school that Tuesday because of water pressure,” Bolden said. “They asked them to return on Wednesday but probably just like mine, the water came on and went right back off. So that morning by 10:15, I had to go back and pick them up.”

Bolden was working from home due to no water pressure at her job and was able to keep her small children at home with her. However, had that not been the case, she would have been forced to take time off work or rely on sitters. For many families facing the same issues, the financial burden was enormous. Many families could not afford to purchase fast food or restaurant prepared meals. Families relying on school lunch options still needed transportation to the sites to pick up the meals. Parents who had to choose between taking off work or hiring childcare found themselves in a sudden economic strain.

“When you think about parents of elementary aged kids who can’t be at home alone, that puts a hardship on parents to be able to identify daycare if they have to go to work during the day while we had to shift to virtual learning,” said Johnson. 

Thea Faulkner, the director of Partners in Education for the Jackson Public School District, organized a donation drive supporting JPS and requested donors give items such as prepackaged meals, laundering services, portable AC units, and portable showers. 

“You just think about the things that, when there is no running water, a person needs to maintain,” she said. “For example, disposable cleaning cloths. We even talked about prepackaged meals because if families are having to boil water to prepare meals, it’s expensive and time consuming. They have to boil water, let it cool, clean food, prepare food, and then boil water again to wash the dishes and clean the kitchen. It is extremely time consuming and can be expensive. So, for families who have children, it’s just math.”

The district received hundreds of pallets of water, financial contributions, gift cards, and volunteers from across the country. 

“I think what happened is we were on the national platform and people were being responsive,” Faulkner said. “On September 29, Atmos made a $25,000 presentation to us. I even got some gift cards in the mail from a school in Georgia.”

MAE set up a fund to assist educators with the purchase of water and partnered with different agencies to provide clean drinking water to several schools and community members. They also organized two to three water giveaway events in the parking lots of local schools and placed a special focus on educators. 

“We did it at a time where our educators who were teaching virtually could come and pick up more because what we noticed was that many of the water giveaways are held throughout the day,” Jones said. “Educators were teaching from seven to four so we wanted to provide a space where educators don’t feel the need to take off work or leave a class in order to come pick up the water. So we scheduled an afternoon for a giveaway.”

On Sept. 15, more than two months after the most recent water crisis began, Governor Reeves announced that the boil water notice was lifted and the water system was restored to its original state. Some are left wondering how the predicament will affect student achievement. JPS earned an improved “C” rating in the 2022 Mississippi Department of Education’s School Accountability System. Johnson says that he believes the academic loss will be minimal. 

“As a second grade educator, we know that many of our students sometimes lose learning over the summer,” said Jones. “This event happened during the height of school openings where our students are just getting back into our schools so we know that’s going to be one of the effects (of the situation).”

Johnson is optimistic that this time the loss will be minimal. 

“We went through a pandemic and an ice storm and I think we’re the school district most ready for those types of situations,” he said. “Despite going through all of those things, we improved to a “C” rating. That speaks volumes to our ability to respond to adversity. Of course, that’s not a crown we want to wear – to be the district that can respond to those sorts of things – but our experience going through those weather events and world events I think prepared us for the recent water crisis that we’ve been through.”

Yet, even if the academic implications are minimal, there is still a consideration of the health and wellness of the city’s youngest residents. Bolden’s children have become so desensitized to the situation that they reach for a bottle of water to brush their teeth without even turning on the sink first. Howard’s daughter, who is a sixth grader at Bailey APAC, had anxiety about returning to school amidst all the issues.

“She felt it was unsanitary,” she said. “She felt the need to always put sanitizer on her hands because in her mind there is no water so no one is clean. She (questioned) how the food was being prepared. She was just uneasy.”

There is also the threat of high levels of lead in the water system. As part of the MAE study, the organization reported that the Jackson water system “has multiple lead risk factors, including lead joints in old cast iron piping, lead service lines for the majority of houses, and lead solder on copper piping within homes. These risk factors culminated in a sharp increase in lead levels in 2015.” The report goes on to cite a 2016 Clarion Ledger article by Anna Wolfe which found failures to implement proper corrosion control methods in the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant caused the city to receive a “Treatment Technique Violation” from the EPA for the last 4 years of testing. The city has remained an enforcement priority for the EPA under the lead copper rule since 2019. MAE also noted that the Lead Safe Housing Act implementation in Jackson is inadequate in identifying and repairing homes that are at risk of lead poisoning within their water systems.

“One of the other things that we’re worried about is whether or not there is lead in the water, and if so, if there were other contaminants in the water,” Jones said. “Those things are detriments to our children that might possibly affect them in years to come. Moving forward, we are continuing to advocate for safe water. We’re continuing to provide our educators and our community members, as well as our students, with clean drinking water if needed. We’re also attending different roundtables to learn more about what the City of Jackson and State of Mississippi are doing to ensure that we have safe and clean water for our community.”

However, many businesses and families are reluctant to wait for those answers. Bolden has now moved out of the city of Jackson. Part of her reasoning – having a stable water supply. 

“I actually used to live here (in Byram) and I like the area itself but you could definitely say the water is a part of why (I moved),” Bolden said. “I feel like here, they get on top of things before something happens. They prepare for it. I don’t understand how if you’re dealing with weather advisories about something or you know what’s going on with the infrastructure, you [don’t] fix things along the way.”

Howard has also moved out of the city into a home in Byram. Still, it is shocking to her that a city with the size and prominence of Jackson continues to suffer from water woes.

“It’s bizarre,” Howard said. “We’re in the state capital. We are in Jackson. For us to not have running water – or when it is running to not be able to use it because it’s unclean or it’s toxic – is just unimaginable.”

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Jackson’s water crisis takes a toll on its youngest residents

By Torsheta Jackson
November 28, 2022