So far in 2022, the United States has suffered at least five major flash flooding events, with areas from Missouri, to Kentucky, to Texas, and the deep South all facing literally unprecedented levels of rainfall resulting in floods that have left dozens dead across the nation. This week, it was Mississippi’s turn to face record setting rain that—yes, definitely—is connected to increasing incidents of severe weather attributable to the human-created climate crisis.
That rain pushed the level of the Pearl River well above flood stage in the state capital of Jackson. Many neighborhoods in the predominately Black city have been plunged below the flood waters over the last three days. It will take weeks to tally the damage and, as local NBC station WLBT reports, approximately 180,000 people have been left without water in the wake of the flooding disaster. A failure at one of the city’s two water treatment plants resulted in a drop in the pressure across the whole system, allowing untreated water to enter the lines. It’s not just drinking water that’s out. Across the whole city, there’s not enough pressure in the lines to fight fires or even reliably flush a toilet.
The cause seems obvious … obvious except to Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. As Reuters reports, Reeves stepped in, pushed local officials out, and refused to draw any connection to the fact that the water system in Jackson has been inundated by the flooding. He’s completely cut local elected officials out of decisions on how to address the crisis, going so far as to not even invite Democratic Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba to the press conference where Reeves announced that the system would be out indefinitely.
Now the federal government and President Joe Biden are stepping in, and making a point of including the elected Black mayor and other local officials in making decisions, things may change quickly.
Jackson, Mississippi, is a classic case of how “white flight” can destroy a location’s tax base and leave Black residents holding the bag. As the regional Clarion-Ledger reports, the new water plant was built in the 1980s after the city’s population soared to over 200,000. But over the next two decades, white residents fled the city and moved to the surrounding suburbs. With the rapid loss of over 35,000 people, prices for homes in the city plummeted. That drove down tax revenues, requiring increases in tax rates, starting a spiral all too familiar to Black homeowners across the nation. In many areas, the tax rates for low-income Black neighborhoods are actually much higher than nearby wealthier white neighborhoods, in large parts because those Black neighborhoods are carrying the cost of outsized and outdated infrastructure left behind by white flight.
As the areas around Jackson grew, increased in value, and built up new infrastructure, the city continued to reduce in size, with homes losing values and long-time Jackson companies capable of providing stable tax bases choosing to relocate to chase those areas with newer infrastructure, lower tax rates, and much whiter populations. As in many states, rural lawmakers in the Republican-dominated state legislature, and in the state’s gubernatorial mansion, saw little reason to help the struggling city, even if they had to deal with living nearby. Starved for funds, struggling with aging infrastructure, and surrounded by white suburbs that seem to take pleasure in watching the city that had been the heart of the region slowly die, Jackson’s story is the story of many Black majority cities.
As in other cities, Jackson has tried to supplement property taxes by adding a small (1%) income tax. That tax has then been used as an excuse by companies that have moved headquarters out of the city, meaning that top level jobs in Jackson have become extremely rare. In the last decade alone, as wages across the region have risen, the average incomes in Jackson have declined almost 8%.
The failure during the flooding of the Pearl River is far from the first time there’s been trouble with the aging water plant. Prior to the flood, the city has experienced off-and-on boil orders for weeks, many related to broken pipes that date back 70 years. Previous flooding in 2020 also resulted in damage to the plant and the entry of untreated water into the system. The extreme heat of 2022 has resulted in record numbers of pipe failures (not just in Jackson), and both the city’s budget and maintenance department have been stretched trying to keep up. At the same time, 90% of the roads in the city are rated as “poor” and extremes in both heat and cold over the last year have left the city struggling to address potholes that make some routes almost impassible. The flooding has contributed to both more failing pipes and further degradation of roads.
Fighting with all of this, Lumumba has also been faced with a hostile legislature and a smug, belligerent governor in Reeves. As the water rose, the mayor warned residents to get out, citing the last major flood that damaged homes and took lives in the area just two years ago. As it became clear that the water plant was struggling, Lumumba addressed residents again, warning that the floods were requiring the plant to reduce pressure and adjust treatment options. Just hours later, Reeves stepped in with a press conference of his own, telling residents not to drink the water. The governor didn’t even bother to invite Lumumba and dismissed the idea that the flooding was behind the plant failure.
While the mayor said he expected it to be a few days before the pressure on the system is restored, Reeves was less positive, giving no end date for Jackson’s water crisis. According to Reeves, the state is “surging resources” to the water plant and “beginning emergency repairs” for which the state will graciously pay … half. Both the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the City of Jackson have announced plans to distribute drinking water over the following week, though it’s not clear to what extent the two are communicating.
What is clear, at last, is that following pleas from area hospitals, Reeves did file for federal emergency assistance. On Tuesday, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted out that President Biden has been “in regular contact with state and local officials, including Mayor Lumumba, and made clear that the Federal Government stands ready to offer assistance.” Both FEMA and the EPA are working “to expedite delivery of critical treatment equipment” and funds from both the American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure bill are available to address the costs. The press release notably did not mention Reeves.
Jackson will get its water back. Hopefully repairs will come in days, not weeks, and residents will get sufficient drinking water while waiting for the showers to come back on. Even in the best circumstances, it’s likely to be weeks before the boil orders are lifted.
There are few things more essential than clean drinking water, and few things less forgivable than how the story of Jackson has been repeated in so many other cities. As Aysha Qamar wrote after six years of watching government at all levels fail to address the crisis in Flint, Michigan, the real tragedy wasn’t that state officials didn’t know how bad things were or how much misery it was causing. It was that they did.
Earlier this year, Reeves celebrated how Mississippi’s abortion legislation had been used as a pretext for overturning Roe v. Wade. Mississippi was, according to Reeves, “creating a culture of life.” As Laura Clawson wrote, Mississippi also has the highest firearm mortality rate, the highest homicide rate, the lowest life expectancy at birth, and the highest infant mortality of all 50 states. Reeves never did say that culture was in favor of life.
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