White House announces feds will take charge in Jackson water emergency

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Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba holds one of several press conferences on Jackson’s water crisis. (Top) The Pearl River cresting, as can be seen at the Old Brandon Road Bridge on the corner of East Silas Brown Street and South Jefferson Street, exacerbated the city’s mounting infrastructure issues. (Bottom) (Advocate photos by Joshua Martin)

The Biden administration late Tuesday authorized the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to “coordinate all disaster relief efforts” to alleviate the hardship and suffering caused by the failure of Jackson’s water supply system.

The federal government will pay 75 percent of all costs related to the emergency for the next 90 days, the announcement said. 

Federal intervention comes on the day after the city and state revealed the extent of the city’s water crisis that was exacerbated by floodwaters from the Pearl River and the malfunction of the main water processing plant.

One day after holding a multi-party press conference on the Jackson water crisis that excluded Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Gov. Tate Reeves Tuesday submitted a formal request to President Joe Biden asking for emergency aid to gain control of the crisis.

Biden authorized the deployment of FEMA operations after consultation with the heads of the federal agencies and an appeal from 2nd District Congressman Bennie Thompson.

FEDERAL SUPPORT 

Thompson announced his support for the efforts of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), saying he would request an emergency declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and seek the earliest possible intervention of the President to offer immediate relief.

“I’ve been in contact with both FEMA and the White House about this request and strongly recommend the President approve the declaration as soon as possible,” Thompson said. “I hope the Federal government will be able to provide resources adequate and comprehensive enough to address the health and safety crisis facing the City of Jackson and surrounding communities.”

ernment will be able to provide resources adequate and comprehensive enough to address the health and safety crisis facing the City of Jackson and surrounding communities.”

Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced via Twitter Tuesday: “We are closely monitoring the floods in Mississippi, and the President has been briefed. At his direction, we have been in regular contact with state and local officials, including Mayor Lumumba, and made clear that the federal government stands ready to offer assistance.”

“We will continue to partner closely with state and local officials to support the people of Mississippi and stand ready to assist further as soon as we receive an official request from the state,” the President’s aide said.

NAACP CONCERNS

Only a few hours before Reeves made his direct pitch to President Biden,  NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson submitted a rather stern letter to the Mississippi governor urging him to put the interests of the people of Jackson ahead of his other concerns and seek federal aid to remedy the situation. 

“Governor Tate Reeves, why are you delaying requesting federal assistance from FEMA?” Johnson asked. “The citizens of Jackson, Mississippi are facing a serious water crisis that will soon spiral into a catastrophe without appropriate action.”

Reeves has established a pattern of using statewide media to demean and chastise Jackson’s Black officials in their times of troubles. NAACP CEO Johnson is well aware of the sometimes-caustic exchanges between the governor and the city, having been the president of the Mississippi NAACP chapter and a resident of Jackson long before his October 2017 appointment to head the national office. 

“You are failing to take the critical step of requesting federal assistance,” Johnson wrote. “And the consequences of that failure to act will harm most acutely Black communities in Jackson.”

The governor needed to submit a federal emergency declaration request immediately, Johnson said.

“Stop with the television appearances,” Johnson advised Reeves, “And ask for (federal) aid.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, the governor’s office released a copy of his five-page letter to Biden, asking for federal aid for the current crisis. In the letter, Reeves enumerates 8 major disasters and 4 emergency declarations for Mississippi since 2020, including the severe storms and mudslide and floods of April 2020 and prolonged ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reeves mobilized the State Department of Transportation, Public Utilities, Mississippi National Guard, and Department of Public Safety for emergency assistance. 

As soon as the crisis at the water processing plant has been mitigated, the City of Jackson will be held responsible for getting the balance of the work done, Reeves says in his letter.

“I anticipate that emergency actions will be ongoing until the water pumps at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant are brought back into service and water pressure restored to the impacted residents,” he writes. “At that time, I intend to withdraw the agencies listed above and allow the City of Jackson to maintain its system.”

STATE & LOCAL

The mayor said that Reeves was  correct in declaring a state of emergency for Jackson but was incorrect in claiming the city had shut down water lines to some homes and that raw, untreated water was being pumped through the system that supplies as many as 180,000 consumers in the metropolitan area.

The City of Jackson did not cut off anyone’s water, Lumumba said. Low pressure in the pipes and storage tanks caused many homes to lose access to the water, he explained. 

Reeves declared in his August 30 executive emergency order that “a condition of disaster and extreme peril” exists that  is beyond the abilities of Jackson and Hinds County to combat. And Reeves assigned the Mississippi National Guard to assist the City of Jackson and surrounding areas during recovery efforts. 

The Mississippi Department of Health and MEMA are working in conjunction with the city to attend to issues that call for immediate action. The health department declared an emergency for Jackson’s drinking water and listed the goals needed to remedy the situation. 

OBSOLETE SYSTEM 

Jackson has faced an increasing number of problems brought on by natural disasters and its obsolete water supply system over the years.  The water pipes serving the city were installed over 60 years ago, according to the city’s Public Works Department. Nearly all the pipes need replacing, although the cost lies far beyond the city’s ability to pay for the work. The old cast iron pipes should be replaced by ductile iron pipes, the former operations director told the Jackson Advocate last December.

The city’s water supply comes through two surface water processing plants – the O.B. Curtis and the J. H. Fewell – and a groundwater system dependent on deep aquifers near south Jackson. O. B. Curtis, in normal times, supplies 50 million gallons a day, and J. H. Fewell, 20 million. The flooding of the Pearl River has created problems with treating water at the O.B. Curtis plant. And since the malfunctions at O.B. Curtis, Fewell has been producing about 30 million gallons a day, a state official said Monday.

Adjustments to the water treatment process are being made because of the Pearl River overflow and this has led to a temporary decrease in the production of water for some areas. This will remain an issue for the next couple of days as efforts are made to refill the tanks, Lumumba said.  Continuing breakdowns within O. B. Curtis, the mainstay of the water system, brought on the need for repair and renovations some months ago. Initially, this necessitated only some minor interruptions. But the sudden impact of floodwaters from the Pearl River added tremendously to the problem.

Nearby municipalities like Byram, the Nissan Plant in Canton, and the state fairgrounds also depend on the Jackson Water System.   The Jackson Medical Mall and the University of Mississippi Medical Center at the Mall announced they are on a fire-watch due to the failed water supply. The UMMC campus and the Lakeland Medical Building, however, are on a well-water system and are not being impacted by the city’s water issues.

WIDESPREAD HELP

MEMA announced Tuesday that it is setting up a command center at the O.B. Curtis Plant and will work with the Mississippi National Guard to distribute both drinking and non-drinking water throughout Jackson and Byram.   

An outpouring of support for the people of Jackson who are burdened with the water crisis has come from many corners. 

When Jackson State announced that it was going virtual for many of its classes due to the lack of water, head football coach Deion Sanders said he was uncertain of how he would prepare his team for a major game scheduled for Saturday. 

Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons offered the JSU football team housing and food for the duration of the crisis.

“When our neighbor is in need, we are in need and should lend a helping hand,” said Simmons, who graduated from JSU in the year 2000. “We invite Coach Prime, the JSU coaching staff, and football team to Greenville. We’ve reached out to hotels and business leaders who are willing to provide the lodging, the financial support for food, and the practice fields for JSU.”

Simmons said Tuesday he was waiting for a response from JSU or Coach Prime.

The Mississippi Department of  Public Safety’s office on East Woodrow Wilson has announced that its Driver’s Service staff will relocate to the Pearl Office/Troop C at 385 Highway 468 West in Pearl. The Pearl office will operate on an appointment-only basis. For further information, visit https://telegov.egov.com/dps or https://www.dps.ms.gov.

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White House announces feds will take charge in Jackson water emergency

By Earnest McBride
August 31, 2022