JACKSON, Miss. — Tim Finch first heard about the “messed up” water in Jackson three decades ago as a teenager. The lifelong resident has always believed the city’s on-again, off-again, “brown” tap water was unsafe to drink. But as a child in the 1990s, he didn’t completely understand why.
Now, at 45 years old, Finch is frustrated that the same water issues from his youth are being exacerbated by climate change and neglect by elected officials. In the latest crisis, Jackson has been under a boil water notice since July 29. While leaders announced this week that the water pressure has been restored, the city’s tap still is not safe to drink.
“That’s what they throw in our faces, ‘Oh, the water pressure is back to full blast.’ But the state health official just said don’t brush your teeth with this water,” Finch said. “So what do I care about high-pressure poison coming out?”
Efforts are underway to restore drinkable tap water to this city of more than 160,000 people after a water treatment plant failed to hold up to major storms and flooding. Last week, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency that allowed state departments to oversee operations at the city’s water treatment plant. Reeves also requested financial assistance from the federal government and deployed 600 members from the National Guard to distribute bottled water and hand sanitizer at seven sites across Jackson.
But state and city leaders are mired in finger pointing over who is responsible for the more than $1 billion in repairs and upgrades needed to prevent Jackson’s dilapidated water system from ongoing failures. And residents say there’s little acknowledgement of the deeply rooted racial issues that underlie the recurring water crises in Mississippi’s predominately Black capital city.
Finch, who now works with youth through a nonprofit called Operation Good, is conflicted about how much the younger generation should know about the politics and racism that underlie the city’s water woes. On one hand, he said he’s glad that some are “being oblivious.” He shields them from the truth to avoid instilling a sense of hopelessness that might lead some down a path of violence, destruction, and hate.
Instead, he teaches them the importance of helping your own people and neighbors in what seems to be a “never-ending struggle.” Last week, he worked with a small team of youth volunteers with Operation Good to hand out cases of bottled water under the midday sun, ushering a line of cars through a community center parking lot. The center’s pool was filled with brownish-green water and the benches were worn out, but it’s “the kids’ safe haven,” Finch said.
At 1 p.m., he told the team to take a break while the program coordinator drove to pick up more water. By the time the pickup truck returned 30 minutes later, the parking lot was filled with another line of cars. From as early as 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. or later, Operation Good ensured every vehicle that pulled up received at least one case of water.
“We know where the problem comes from. It’s a generational destruction of Jackson,” Finch said. “The struggle won’t end until all of our people — and I just don’t mean Black, I mean anybody who just wants to live fair and be in a fair world — until all of us succeed together.”
A multigenerational crisis
Growing up on the city’s south side, Kansas Gray, 37, remembers having brown water most times. He recalls his mom telling him that water from the faucet was poisonous.
Instead of using tap water, she bought jugs from the store and gathered rain water outside.
“Mama wouldn’t put faucet water in her flowers,” Gray said. She feared it would kill them.
Over the past week, Gray’s home and barbershop have had little to no water. Despite the impact on his business, Gray, a community activist, said the focus should be on the elderly, ill, and disabled residents. They can’t access the water distribution sites, he noted, and grassroots organizations have a limited capacity to deliver to homes.
“People who live in nursing homes and stuff, they get left out,” Gray said. “It really affects the people who can’t sit in line … can’t sit out there in the sun waiting on no one case of water.”
After moving from the countryside of Houston, Mississippi, to northeast Jackson more than 20 years ago, Shenetha James, a 47-year-old mother of four, never thought she would have to boil water again.
Before the state declared a water emergency, James tripled the number of cases of water she usually buys to cook and clean because she doesn’t trust that boiling the water is sufficient, she said. And last week, when the tap stopped flowing, she left her home and moved into a hotel, which was a financial burden for her.
“I’m a single parent with four kids, two in college and two here at home,” she said, “and it is a huge inconvenience for me to purchase water for my household every time I get paid.”
James is now planning to move away from Jackson within the next two years.
“I’m already cleaning my house out and looking around the house to see what repairs need to be made,” James said. “I’m only staying in Mississippi so my son can graduate.”
Kynndle Robinson, a 20-year-old youth participant with Operation Good, wakes up every morning and heads to the park in south Jackson to give out water. Like those she’s helping, Robinson’s home has no running water, but her family doesn’t talk about it. Living with discolored water and frequent boil water notices is “everyday life.”
Still, she is scared she may get sick one day.
“I don’t really care about giving out water, but they need to fix all these issues,” Robinson said, while waiting for more cars to arrive at the water distribution site. “It’s just sad how we gotta pass out water everyday, and they ain’t doing nothing.”
Robinson doesn’t understand why the water problems exist, but as far as she knows, government officials don’t care about the majority-Black city of Jackson.
Maisie Brown, a 22-year-old organizer with the Mississippi Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team, has had a similar awakening.
“The older you get, the more you realize, ‘Oh, my god, everything is rooted in racism,’” Brown said. “And the way that our highways were built, in the way that railroads were built, in the way that like America is a country literally built, founded, and constructed around the construct of race. [It makes you think], ‘So how do we move? Like, is it possible?’”