Mississippi calls in National Guard after state capital's water supply cut

A view shows a flooded area next to a road near Pearl River in Ridgeland, Mississippi, on Aug 29, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

CHICAGO (REUTERS) - Mississippi's National Guard was activated on Tuesday (Aug 30) to help hand out water to tens of thousands of Jackson residents after a long-neglected treatment plant broke down, leaving most of the state capital without safe running water, possibly for days.

Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency for Jackson and surrounding communities, warning the area's 180,000 residents to avoid drinking tap water. He also called up the state National Guard to assist in efforts to bring relief to the city, which was battered by record rainfall and flooding over the weekend.

The flooding contributed to the treatment plant's failure, officials said, although Reeves said he had learned last week that the breakdown was only a matter of time, given years of poor maintenance.

The loss of water pressure "has created a condition of disaster and extreme peril to the safety of persons and property," a statement issued on Tuesday by the governor's office read.

Until the treatment facility is brought back online, "the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs," Reeves said in a briefing on Monday evening.

The current crisis follows a string of disruptions to the city's water supply in recent years caused by high lead levels, bacterial contamination and storm damage.

Jackson, whose residents are more than 80 per cent Black or African American, according to US Census data, was already on a boiled water alert for a month due to "elevated turbidity levels," which makes the water appear cloudy.

Jeff Good, who owns a bakery, a pizza parlour and an Italian restaurant in Jackson, said he closed all three establishments on Tuesday because of a lack of water pressure. He had to tell his 210 employees to stay home, and in the restaurant business, he said, that means they don't get paid. "Their hours are cancelled," he said. "It's a struggle and extremely stressful."

Andy Nesenson, general manager of the Iron Horse Grill, said while his restaurant has some water, it was not suitable to drink, costing him significant amounts of money to buy in bottled water and bagged ice.

Reeves, a Republican, said state officials would establish an incident command center at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, which had been operating with smaller back-up pumps after the facility's main pumps were severely damaged.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, declared a water system emergency, saying the crisis was caused by complications from recent Pearl River flooding. The treatment plant sits next to a reservoir that drains into the river just north of town.

On Tuesday, tankers were distributing non-potable water, while several sites opened to distribute bottled drinking water, the city said. Each vehicle driven to one of the sites would get a single case of water.

Jackson Public Schools, with nearly 21,000 students, were closed on Tuesday as classes were moved online. In addition to the O.B. Curtis plant, which treats 50 million gallons (227,300 cubic metres) per day, the city operates the Fewell plant, whose normal production of 20 million was increased to 30 million gallons due to the situation.

The White House said on Tuesday that President Joe Biden had been briefed on the situation, and administration officials were in contact with state and local officials, including Lumumba.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Environmental Protection Agency were assisting state officials to identify needs and to deliver equipment needed for emergency repairs, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Twitter.

In February 2021, a pair of winter storms caused most residents in Jackson to briefly lose running water.

In 2016, customers were told of high lead levels in the city's water supply caused by recurring faulty water treatment techniques.

A year ago, the EPA issued an emergency order saying the water supply could contain E. Coli, according to Mississippi Today.

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