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Transcript: Without Water in Jackson

A severe storm disrupted water access in Jackson. Decades of neglect and inaction are to blame.


Into America

Without Water in Jackson

Trymaine Lee: Imagine for a moment life with no water. None to drink or bathe in or to flush with. None to do dishes or laundry in, none to wipe the smudge from your child's face or to wash down food or medication. Of all we take for granted every single day in America, access to fresh water probably tops the list.

By now we've all heard the heartbreaking story of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But all across the country, from cities to towns deep in rural America, life without fresh, drinkable water is a daily reality. One of the regions that struggles with clean water is the Black Belt, a swath of geography in the American South that stretches from East Texas into the heart of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Home to some of the richest land in the U.S., but also home to some of our country's poorest, most resource-starved people. The water issue usually flies under the radar until there's a catastrophe.

Archival Recording: Imagine wakin' up thinkin', "It's rainin' outside, I could probably capture some water to flush my toilet."

Archival Recording: Thousands of Jackson residents have little to no water pressure tonight.

Archival Recording: As of right now, the mayor says he cannot give a definitive day or time when the water will be back on.

Archival Recording: Welcome to Jackson, Mississippi.

Lee: Over the course of three weeks, tens of thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, the state's capital, went without water. And even today, most still can't drink what's comin' outta the tap.

Cassandra Welchlin: My son saw-- saw us gathering this water, and he just kinda stood by and was watching. And he said, "Mama, what's wrong?"

Lee: A rare winter storm, and then a freeze brought the city's ancient pipe system to its breaking point. Most of the people who had no water are Black.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba: I do think that if we're being honest, it's a matter of race.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today the reality of life without water in Jackson, and the troubling connection between neglected infrastructure and race that's even older than those pipes.

Welchlin: I remember these ice storms. My grandma, my mom, that's what we had to do. You just prepared the tubs.

Lee: Prepare the tubs. Cassandra Welchlin learned that one early on whenever winter storms rolled through Mississippi.

Welchlin: Fill up buckets, fill up your tubs, fill up your sinks.

Lee: Cassandra was born and raised in Jackson, a city that's more than 80% Black. She still lives there today with her husband and three children.

Welchlin: They call it the chocolate city, right? It's also the largest city, you know, in the state. It is, you know, full of soul. You come to Jackson, Mississippi, you're gonna be sittin' on somebody's front porch drinkin' some sweet tea havin' a barbecue, Ms. Mary on the front porch saying, "Hey, baby." You know, it's such a friendly community, right. Everybody knows everybody and in your business. But it's so vibrant.

Lee: Vibrant but also largely poor, mostly segregated, and steeped in some ugly history.

Welchlin: It is a place where slaves built our city halls, right, and our state buildings.

Lee: It was just nine months ago that the Mississippi state flag with the Confederate battle emblem came down at the capital.

Archival Recording: (CHANTS) Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.

Archival Recording: When Mississippi moves, America moves. (CHEERS)

Archival Recording: After weeks of mounting pressure, the Mississippi House has passed a bill to change the state flag, the last in the country to still include the Confederate battle emblem.

Lee: Cassandra and her family live in West Jackson, a section of the city that's more Black and more impoverished than the other side of town. It's also further from the city's water treatment plant. About a month ago, Cassandra was watching Winter Storm Uri inch closer to Jackson, the same storm that devastated Texas.

Archival Recording: All right, here we go with the threat tracker. We have gone ahead and expanded the entire area with a significant threat of wintry weather across our area. This really starts off today and continues through your Tuesday. Disruptive icing. This would be more so an ice storm situation.

Welchlin: And so kid you not, we were going to the grocery stores, and, you know, shelves were being emptied. And so people were preparing, you know, for what was to come. What I don't think people realized though was how long the effects would be.

Lee: The storm hit Jackson on Valentine's Day, a Sunday. At first, the situation didn't seem so bad. And then.

Welchlin: We started seeing and hearing that there were going to be ice accumulations. That was very worrisome to us, and so day three into the storm, there were people posting on Facebook that the water treatment center is not going to be able to uphold.

Lee: Uh-oh.

Welchlin: So people go ahead and fill your tubs up. And we're telling our children, go ahead and find candles, go ahead and get the blankets out, just in case we lose power and we can't get on the roads to go anywhere.

Lee: She knew what she had to do. As always, prepare the tubs.

Welchlin: We was fillin' the tub of water, because if we lost water pressure, we needed water to flush toilets. Give it pressure so that it can flush. We were filling the sinks as well for the same purposes. And if we needed it for other things, we didn't know what we would, you know, need it for. My husband went outside actually and was gathering some snow, and-- and was putting it in buckets just in case we needed it for something.

Lee: Did you actually lose your water?

Welchlin: Maybe that Wednesday our water pressure started decreasing tremendously. By Thursday, Friday, it was just driplets happening. And the next morning, there was no water.

Lee: So with tubs and sinks filled, and with a small supply of bottled water, the family hunkered down for what turned out to be an entire week.

Welchlin: I remember my daughter saying, "Mama, I'm thirsty." And we're only down to one case of water. And we hadn't even really been assessing all of that, because we were trying to deal with all these other complicated things. I remember one day, I was, like, "Wait, nobody's had a bath here. We need to try to do a sponge bath."

Lee: Like we said earlier, there's the obvious stuff you need water for, bathing, drinking, and of course the family laundry. But that would have to wait.

Welchlin: I remember I hadn't even thought about laundry. And I was, like, "Oh my gosh, we gotta go wash." Well, there's no water in the city to do that.

Lee: Finally, after a long week, they got their water restored. Well, kinda.

Welchlin: So now it comes back on, but it's dripping again, so it's almost like it's starting over. And so it's dripping, but it's brown.

Lee: The water, I'm sorry, the water comin' out is brown? This is not drinkable water, so the water's on but it's, like.

Welchlin: Oh yeah, no.

Lee: And even when the water came back, there was a citywide order to boil it before using it. That boil order is still in effect for most of the city, including Cassandra's neighborhood. All these tasks, the stress around this basic necessity of life, it takes a toll.

Welchlin: My son saw-- saw us gathering this water, and he just kinda stood by and was watching. And he said, "Mama, what's wrong?" He began to get nervous, and he's our kid that's very sensitive, has high emotional intelligence. It made him nervous and made him scared and made him anxious. And he said, "Is this coronavirus happening all over again?" That's what he said. And I said, "Son, tell me what you mean when you say that." He's nine years old. He's nine.

Lee: And he's already seeing the trauma and everything we went through with COVID playing out. He's seeing it in your face and the behavior of the family and gathering water. He's, like, "Yo, what is really good here, what's happening?"

Welchlin: Exactly. He didn't feel safe. He's a kid who, physical touch is his love language. And so he came up to us or to me, and he just put his hands on me and was just kind of following me around. So he was seeing all of this, and so now he's getting very nervous. And so there's a traumatic experience for him. And we had to talk that out with him.

Lee: Even as her own family struggled, Cassandra knew that many were going through worse. She's the executive director of Mississippi Black Women's Roundtable, a nonprofit that advocates for Black women and girls throughout the state. Her organization worked with churches, community groups, and local businesses to help out with the basics like distributing bottled water.

Welchlin: Moms don't have water to make the formula for their babies. We've been providing hotel rooms for families when they didn't have power, when they didn't have water just to have some normalcy in their lives for their families.

Lee: Let's be clear. When Jackson is through this crisis, it's not the end of the problem, because the city's water system is a century old and decrepit.

Welchlin: There's often, you know, water main breaks that occur across the city, or the water pressure is low. So we are constantly having to boil water within the city of Jackson, some neighborhoods more than others. And this impacts also, you know, businesses, restaurants, childcare centers that are serving, you know, families. So yes, this is constant that we have to do this.

Lee: The boil orders mostly happen in the mostly Black areas. To Cassandra, these repeated crises, the boil orders, the crumbling infrastructure, you can't disconnect any of this from race.

Welchlin: If you do that, you are, you're not tellin' the truth. Let me say that. You're not tellin' the truth, because the-- the question is, why-- why is it like this? And it's the disinvestment. Well, why is there disinvestment in our Black and brown communities and our Black and brown cities?

Because there is these attitudes, and there's this intentionality to keep people who are Black and brown from experiencing the American dream. And so it's the racism that plays out that says that, you know, these people aren't worthy. So racism is very much a part of, very much a part of it, but I can't leave out gender either.

Where poverty is situated is in those households led by single moms. Like, that's where the poverty is, and that poverty rate is higher in Mississippi among women than anywhere else in the country. And so systemic racism is definitely a part of the system, and it goes back to Jim Crow.

It wreaks Jim Crow, and this is the consequence. And this is the consequences, and I don't even want to say unintended consequences. These are the intended consequences of what happens when you don't invest in our communities of color and our Black communities. This is what happens.

Lee: Coming up, I talk to the mayor of Jackson who's Black, and I ask him, "What will it take to fix this age old water problem? And whose job is it?" Stick with us.

Lee: I just want ask point blank and period, if Jackson was a majority white city, do you think the city would find itself in this position it's in?

Lumumba: I want to say it as plainly as possible, no, it would not be.

Lee: Chokwe Antar Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson in 2017. He was just 34, born in Detroit, but raised in Jackson from the age of five. His parents were prominent Black revolutionary activists, and they felt Jackson needed their help.

Lumumba: My father wanted to come to Jackson, because he was here in the '70s and said that "We have unfinished business." And so my parents both being organizers felt that they couldn't shield us from their work, they couldn't shield us from a movement. So they thought giving us a sense of community, a sense of-- of the work in which we had to be a part of was as important as giving us food, water and shelter.

Lee: Chokwe's father was elected mayor in 2013, but he died less than a year into his term. So the son followed in his father's footsteps, and the current Mayor Lumumba has had to deal with many of the same issues as his father. Poverty, a dwindling population, and neglect of the city's rickety infrastructure. The February storm made it painfully clear who bears the brunt of that neglect.

Lumumba: As systems came back on, it was the more affluent and often white areas that had either low water pressure to be restored earlier or to have their water restored sooner than-- than the other areas. Because those communities are closest to the water treatment facility. They're closest to the river.

There are justice and equity issues here, but it's not because you have a city that is choosing to flip the white switch versus the Black switch of water. It's because when the city was laid out, there were all kinds of considerations that, you know, supported one community over another.

Lee: It's the same old story. Infrastructure and inequality going hand in hand. Mayor Lumumba says it would take at least one and probably $2 billion to truly repair the water system. The city of Jackson can't come close to paying that bill.

City leaders say, this will take a major investment from the state. And so there's a stand-off between the city whose mayor and majority of citizens are Black and the state, whose top leaders are all white. Now Jackson's water system didn't turn into a billion dollar problem overnight.

It's the result of decades of inaction and population changes. By the 1980s, white people were making a mass exit to the suburbs taking tax dollars with them. Then in '97, Jackson elected its first Black mayor, and white folks continued to leave the city in droves.

Lumumba: And so it's led to divestment. If your city was built for 200,000 people because you had 200,000 people at the time that the pipes were laid, and now you have 40,000 less people, then, you know, it doesn't take an economist to know that that has a detrimental impact on you.

Lee: Lumumba said that mayor after mayor, all Black men since 1997, all of them have asked the state for help in tackling the water issue. The answer has been a consistent, "No." The state sees this as the city's problem to solve.

Lumumba: I think that we wouldn't be doing this conversation justice, and we'd be less than honest if we didn't say that race plays a major factor. When did that divestment take place? That divestment took place in '96, '97, right, when we ended up with our first Black mayor. That divestment took place when the leadership started to resemble the community itself.

Lee: So without the funds to overhaul the system, the city has been able to make some fixes here and there, but these are just Band-Aids. When a major storm comes through, the Band-Aids don't stick.

Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann: So what happened since then? You know, the prime mover needs to be the city itself. It's the city of Jackson.

Lee: Adding insult to injury, when the Mississippi Free Press asked Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann if the time had come for the state to step in and help its capital city, he responded that, "The last white Jackson mayor had done repair work." So he asked, "Why haven't other mayors?"

Hosemann: What's your plan to do that? How much money is it gonna take, and how are you gonna pay for it? It's not a state. The city is the city of Jackson. It elects its mayor, and it elects its city council, and those people need to come up with a plan.

Lee: But this is the capital city. You would imagine this would be an all hands on deck situation. The amount of money that you're providing to the state, the sheer number of the people being impacted, what do they say when you point out all of the issues and how much it'll cost and the dire needs? What is the response?

Lumumba: Often it feels like they're tone deaf, that they don't hear what we're saying. And I do think that if once again we're being honest, it's a matter of race, right? It's a matter of casting judgment, believing that leadership that looks like us is insufficient to address the needs that we have, right?

You know, no leadership can manage how it supports its community without the funding and the resources that it needs. And so what we see are actually communities going through cycles of humiliation. Poor performing schools, failing infrastructure, high crime, high poverty, all of these things. And so I think that we need to be able to turn the page to a different model, a model that reflects the inherent dignity in every person.

Lee: We reached out to the lieutenant governor for an interview. But we didn't get a response. The governor also declined to comment. You know, obviously we're in the midst of this crisis in Jackson. There are still folks here without proper access to clean, fresh water, right?

And regardless of the complicated nature of the racism and the infrastructure and all the systemic structural stuff, you are the mayor of Jackson. How do you argue against that to say, "Hey, this is still your city. Like, you gotta do something." Like, how do you respond to that?

Lumumba: Well, I think it's all in my community knowing that I'm going to do everything that I can to fight for them. To not only try to see what creative things we can do to produce the money ourselves, leverage money, but knock on every door, communicate not only with the state and federal partners.

And so, you know, my goal each and every day is to show progress, to show an effort, to produce everything that we can. And we've been able to do that with very limited resources. But as I have said, it is still not sufficient to meet that need.

Lee: Now Mayor Lumumba knows he's not getting $2 billion to fix the water system, at least not any time soon. He's not even asking the state for that kind of money.

Lumumba: I'm not saying that, "Hey, please give Jackson an all new shiny city and we'll get outta your hair," right. I'm aware that the politics is the study of who gets what when, where and how. And so there are always challenges of resources, because they're not abundant enough for everyone to get what they need.

Lee: But the mayor is asking for $47 million for immediate emergency repairs, what you might call another Band-Aid.

Lumumba: We're saying that, "Listen, I'm talking to you about equipment at the water treatment facility. I'm not talking to you about the pipes that are over 100 years and are going to rupture and are like peanut brittle, that literally when our water treatment or our public works department go out to fix or repair these pipes, that they sometimes wait for a few minutes, because as they make a repair, a few yards away from where they made the repair it's not uncustomary or uncommon for them to see a rupture happen right before their eyes and then have to run and make that repair."

Lee: He's also asking the state to support raising the city sales tax by 1%, to help us secure other long-term funding. Are you optimistic about the future in terms of rectifying that kind of racial and infrastructure dynamic?

Lumumba: You know, coming out of an organizer background, there's an inherent optimism that exists in you. You wouldn't be fighting and struggling and trying to find solutions if deep down inside you didn't think that there was opportunity for growth, there was opportunity for things to change.

Lee: An opportunity for things to change. Cassandra Welchlin, the Jackson resident we heard from earlier agrees that's what this water crisis could be.

Welchlin: This is an organizing moment just like it was a Black Lives Matter moment this summer with the racial unrest and the protests that happened there. There was an organizing moment then to say "Black lives matter, Black bodies matter." And it's the same thing when it comes to just meeting the basic needs. That organizing work that happened across the country that happened in Mississippi.

Lee: She's talking about the organizing effort last year when lots of different folks came together to get that offensive state flag taken down and forever changed. Cassandra wants that same kind of full-on organizing work around Jackson's water.

Welchlin: Businesses came together, and they formed a partnership. The athletic departments and associations came together to say, "If we don't take down that flag, our players will not be playing." And we know that Mississippi depends on those resources, right?

Just like Fredrick Douglass says, you know, "Power just don't give up." You gotta put a demand on that thing. And so that's what happened during the protests and the taking down of the flag. That same thing needs to happen. We've had companies come in to give us water, right.

We need those companies to stand with us. We need those Walmarts that benefit from our communities, the Sam's that benefit from the communities, we need them to come together and to say, "Enough is enough," to say, "We value your life and this is how." So this is an organizing moment, and we're gonna put a demand on that power. We're gonna say, "Our Black bodies matter, our Black households matter. Water is essential to living. And we don't have to ask permission for water. It is just our God-given right to have it."

Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Special thanks this week to Kehinde Gaynor for sharing his footage of the Jackson water crisis with us. And thanks to Nick Judin from the Mississippi Free Press for additional assistance. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.