WASHINGTON - The 150,000 residents of Jackson, the capital of the southern US state of Mississippi, endured a fourth straight day without clean running water on Thursday, with authorities urging those who still had supplies to shower with their mouths closed.
The city, where 80 per cent of the population is Black and poverty is rife, has been experiencing recurring water crises for years.
But this week's ordeal plunged Jackson into an emergency, with days of major flooding disrupting the operation of a critical but ageing water treatment plant.
When residents turn on the tap, many see only a few drops emerge, or brown water sputters out. Some are spending hours waiting in line to collect bottled water.
"It's like we're living in a nightmare right now," Ms Erin Washington, a student at Jackson State University, told CNN.
Those who do have running water can shower or bathe, but they are being warned not to consume what is coming out of the pipes.
"Please make sure in the shower that your mouth's not open because, again, you do not want to ingest the water," said Mr Jim Craig, director of health protection at the Mississippi Department of Health.
City officials said Thursday they were seeing improvements, with some neighbourhoods beginning to regain water pressure.
Jackson's water treatment plant "made significant gains overnight and into this morning", the city said, a day after an emergency pump was installed while employees worked on getting the facility fully back online.
"There are some challenges remaining to navigate over the next few days, but the outlook for today is currently continued progress," an official city website said.
Acknowledging resident frustrations as warranted, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said: "I just want to assure you that you have a unified front at this hour... endeavouring to fix it."
'Getting worn out'
Daily life has nevertheless been severely disrupted. Schools have been shifted to remote learning, and businesses that have been struggling in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic are now suffering further.
"Hotels and restaurants, already on thin margins, either cannot open or they have to make special accommodations including the purchase of ice, water and soft drinks," Jackson chamber of commerce president Jeff Rent told CNN.
City residents are "getting worn out" and "choosing not to dine in Jackson", Ms Sarah Friedler, who manages the Brent's Drugs diner, lamented to local paper the Clarion-Ledger.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, who earlier declared a state of emergency, said he has mobilised hundreds of National Guard members to coordinate the distribution of drinking water.
While he acknowledged there has been criticism of how the crisis has been handling, "what we're focused on right now is the immediate recovery from this emergency", Mr Reeves told a press conference.
The situation in Jackson, where a similar water crisis hit early last year, is reminiscent of a water contamination scandal in Flint, Michigan in the past decade, which mushroomed into one of the worst municipal health failures in US history.
In that industrial city, a change in the source of drinking water - which authorities determined would save money - ended up contaminating the system and exposing residents to lead poisoning. AFP