When a winter storm knocked out water service to tens of thousands of Mississippi residents, it was Black families that were hit hardest—and who organized their own relief efforts.
cross-posted from YES! Magazine
For Rukia Lumumba, this time was different.
In February 2021, a winter weather warning prompted the native of Jackson, Mississippi, to take precautions, just as she had two years ago when another winter storm hit her hometown. She adjusted the thermostats in her home, filled her bathtub with water, and left the water faucets dripping so the pipes wouldn’t freeze, she said.
The next morning, Lumumba could get only a trickle of water from her faucets. Days went by, and her water did not return.
“This storm lasted four to five days,” she said. “The ice was so thick. The conditions were so different.” Ice covered the roads for days, she said, and stores like Walmart sold out of cases of bottled water.
The back-to-back winter storms in February left about 43,000 homes without access to running water for nearly a month. The cold temperatures caused water plant equipment to freeze and centuries-old water pipes to break, city officials say, which will take more than $2 billion to fix. The water pressure dropped, the system shut down, and service interruptions were disproportionately felt in communities farthest from the city’s water sources, especially in West and South Jackson, areas whose populations are largely Black.
In the time of crisis, grassroots organizing helped the community secure essential needs where the local and state governments came up short. Lumumba, the executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, received several text messages and phone calls alerting her of others without water. The Jackson-based nonprofit describes itself as a community resource, capacity-building incubator and training ground for transformative justice in the South. Lumumba immediately began to organize from her home, calling folks she knew throughout the state who could help distribute water, blankets, and other essential items, she said.
“Literally, just after the storm, we hit the ground running, even with ice on the ground,” she said. “We began to safely distribute things for people, and it was a very dangerous job. There were times I myself felt that I wasn’t gonna make it.”
The roads topped with ice and store closures made it nearly impossible to reach the community.
The city of Jackson operates two water treatment plants, some of whose pipes date back to the 1900s. The Ross Barnett Reservoir and the Pearl River serve as sources for the water utilities, said Jackson Public Works Director Charles Williams at a March 19 virtual town hall.
It isn’t uncommon for residents to experience unsafe drinking water, and boil water notices are common, a city spokesperson said, but frequency of notices varies, depending on the situation. Jackson’s Public Works director told WLBT-TV that, for example, the city experienced nearly 500 main breaks in 2010, and almost 300 more in 2018. High levels of lead were found in the city’s water supply in 2016.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said during the town hall that he has asked for years for federal and state funding to alleviate the city’s infrastructure needs. The mayor, who is Rukia Lumumba’s brother, presented two options for state lawmakers to consider: Support a bill that allows the city to raise its sales tax by 1 cent to raise $14 million per year to fund repairs, or directly allocate $47 million in emergency relief for repairs to the water treatment facilities. The sales tax bill died without committee consideration, and instead lawmakers approved just $3 million to overhaul one of the water plants, saying the city could draw on the federal American Rescue Act for more infrastructure work.
The hurdles of improving a faulty water billing system, the city’s declining tax base, and low revenues mean Jackson cannot afford to make repairs, Mayor Lumumba said.
Antiquated infrastructure issues aren’t new in older cities. In the city of Mound Bayou, situated in the Mississippi Delta, for example, the water lines were installed before the 1970s, said Mayor Eulah Peterson. At some point, “everything wears out,” she said.
“You try to add on to systems that need to be fixed, then you got a situation where a major replacement is needed,” Peterson said. “We’re probably all experiencing what Jackson is experiencing, but it’s not as large.”
Tamiko Smith, a resident of South Jackson, grew worried when her water and power did not return on the second day after the storm. She couldn’t wash, cook, bathe, or flush her toilet. Most importantly, she said, she couldn’t help her husband, Otis, with his at-home dialysis treatments. Staying at home would intensify her husband’s health risks because water and electricity is necessary for his solution bag, she added. The couple had no choice but to check in to a hotel.
“Dialysis is a life-threatening thing,” Smith said. “You can’t go three or four days. It’s not good for a person because you could become septic if you don’t get your treatment.”
Once the power was turned back on three days later, the Smiths returned home. But they still had no water. Tamiko drove 15 minutes every day to her daughter’s house to fill and refill a water cooler until their water service at home was restored. This became a daunting task—filling gallon jugs with water, hauling it to the trunk of her SUV, then toting it into her house. Her water service finally returned two weeks later, she said.
Smith critiqued Gov. Tate Reeves’ slow response to summon help from the National Guard, emphasizing the additional barriers this placed on the elderly community, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities.
“When we were dealing with having no water, our governor was talking about removing the mask mandate. There are quite a few dialysis patients in (South Jackson),” she said.
Arekia Bennett, the director of Mississippi Votes, a millennial-led civic engagement organization, and a South Jackson resident, said what her family and others experienced is systemic racism. Frustration settled in for Bennett when her parents drove to North Jackson—where in some neighborhoods more than 80% of the population is White—to her brother’s house to take a shower. It became evident that there was a financial disinvestment in predominantly Black areas, Bennett said.
“If I’m in areas like Fondren (in North Jackson), and I drive 10 minutes back to South Jackson, you can literally see the changes in infrastructure. You can see the changes in dilapidated buildings and houses,” she said. “You can see the intentional redlining, clear disenfranchisement of people and their livelihoods.”
Bennett said that even the location of the Ross Barnett Reservoir showed the racism embedded in the city infrastructure. The reservoir and its treatment plant lie northeast of Jackson—closest to the White neighborhoods of the city—and the water system’s failure after the storm was felt hardest in the more distant Black neighborhoods.
Bennett and her parents finally got their water service restored three weeks after the storm hit. That moment took her back to 2015 when she spoke on a panel about “climate change being a real thing.” The lack of preparedness by Mississippi’s elected officials is unacceptable and officials must be held accountable, she said.
“People’s lives are not this political chess game,” she said. “We cannot afford to not be prepared for the real implications of not being prepared and what it could do and cause for folks who live literally worlds apart from the other side of Jackson.”
Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, also helped people after the storm, such as moms who needed formula and groceries or laundry services, she said. She agreed with Bennett that it is incumbent on elected officials to be prepared because low-income families, for instance, do not have enough money or job security to prepare for a disaster.
“This is a human right,” she added. “(Lawmakers) have to really pass smart policies that ensure families can take care of themselves in a disaster.”
This is why organizers in the community like Welchlin and Rukia Lumumba stepped in.
Rukia Lumumba said it was in part to “save ourselves” from “willful and intentional neglect by the state to care for the needs of Jackson.” The People’s Advocacy Institute delivered water and food boxes to more than 15,000 homes and housed over 100 people in hotels. Also, her organization conducted wellness calls to thousands of residents, which allowed them to provide more relief. The nonprofit organization also raised more than $20,000 to give out in direct payments for residents to pay utility bills and for other needs.
Lumumba said that while the organization was conducting wellness checks, they learned that a lot of people had also lost their food stamps, food subsidies, or other benefits, and they were hearing that the state had not renewed some of those programs for those residents.
Many of those people were living on fixed incomes, she said. “That was a really big problem.”
While it’s still unclear when Jackson will have enough resources to overhaul its water system, one option the city council is considering would be to work with the Rural Water Emergency Assistance Cooperative, which creates partnerships between municipalities and water utilities to provide technical assistance, physical assistance, and mutual aid in times of need. That would bring in more volunteers and personnel in response to extreme weather events.
In the interim, on-the-ground organizers will continue to pressure lawmakers, while continuing to prioritize the well-being of the community.
“Our community really came together. We can’t wait on the government to meet our immediate needs,” Welchlin said. “We’ve been talking about how to make sure that our community has stockpiles ready for when disasters happen, so we won’t be in this kind of situation again.”