In Jackson, the water is back on, but the crisis remains.

Jackson, Miss. In mid-September, Howard Sanders drove through potholed streets in a white Cadillac weighed down with water bottles on his way to a house in Ward 3, a neglected neighborhood he called a “war zone.”

Sanders, director of marketing and outreach for Central Mississippi Health Services, was then greeted at the door by Johnny Jones. Since Jones’ hip surgery about a month ago, the 74-year-old has used a walker to get around and hasn’t been able to get to any of the city’s water distribution points.

In late August, Jackson’s usual water woes became so dire that President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency: flooding and problems with the water treatment facility had cut off the majority black city’s water supply. Although water pressure returned and the boil water advisory was lifted in mid-September, the problems did not end.

Bottled water is still a way of life. The city’s roughly 150,000 residents should be careful — making sure they don’t rinse their toothbrushes with tap water, cover their mouths when showering, rethink cooking plans, or budget for gas. So that they can move around in search of water. Many residents buy bottled water on top of paying their water bills, meaning less money for everything else. For Jackson’s poorest and oldest residents, who can’t leave their homes or pick up water cases, the dubious water becomes even more difficult to avoid.

“We’re shell-shocked, we’re traumatized,” Sanders said.

Jackson’s water woes are a manifestation of a deeper health crisis in Mississippi, with residents plagued by chronic diseases. It is the state with the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate.

“Water is a window into the neglect that many people have experienced in their lives,” said Richard Mizell Jr., a historian of medicine at the University of Houston. “Consuming bottled water for the rest of your life is not sustainable.”

But no alternative exists in Jackson, said Dr. Robert Smith. He founded Central Mississippi Health Services in 1963 as an outgrowth of his work on civil rights, and the organization now operates four free clinics in the Jackson area. He often sees patients with multiple health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart problems. Unsafe water can be fatal for people who do their own dialysis at home, people with compromised immune systems, or babies who drink formula, Smith said.

One photo shows Dr. Robert Smith standing outside the Central Mississippi Health Services building.
Dr. Robert Smith founded Central Mississippi Health Services in 1963 as an outgrowth of his work on civil rights.(Renuka Reasom/KHN)

Residents filed a lawsuit this month against the city and the private engineering firms responsible for the city’s water system, claiming they have suffered a range of health problems — dehydration, malnutrition, lead poisoning. , exposure to E. coli, hair loss, skin rashes and indigestion. Problems – resulting from contaminated water. The lawsuit alleges that Jackson’s water has elevated lead levels, which the Mississippi State Department of Health has confirmed.

While Jackson’s current water situation is extreme, many communities of color, low-income communities, and those with a large proportion of non-native English speakers also have unsafe water, said Eric Olson, senior strategic director for health and Food in natural resources said. Defense Council. According to a study by the nonprofit advocacy group, these communities are more frequently targeted for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. And it takes longer for these communities to return to compliance with the law, Olson said.

The federal infrastructure bill passed last year includes $50 billion to improve the nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems. Although Mississippi is set to receive $429 million of that fund over five years, Jackson must wait and fight for his share.

And communities often spend years with prolonged illness and trauma. Five years after the water crisis began in Flint, Michigan, about 20 percent of the city’s adults had clinical depression, and about a quarter had post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a recent paper published in JAMA. .

Jones, like many locals, has not trusted Jackson’s water in decades. That mistrust — and constant vigilance, added expense and worry — adds a layer of psychological stress.

“It’s very stressful,” Jones said.

For the city’s poorest communities, the water crisis is on top of existing stressors, including crime and unstable housing, said Dr. Obi McNair, chief operating officer of Central Mississippi Health Services. “That’s extra.”

Over time, that effort and adjustment pays off, said Muda Munger, chief operating officer of My Brother’s Keeper, a community health equity nonprofit in Jackson. Chronic stress and lack of access to care can exacerbate chronic illnesses and lead to premature births, all of which are common in Jackson. “Bad health outcomes don’t happen in the short term,” he said.

For Jackson’s health clinics, the water crisis has reshaped their role. They are providing clean water to the city’s neediest to avoid health complications from drinking or bathing in dirty water.

“We want to be part of that solution,” McNair said.

Terrence Shirley, CEO of the Community Health Center Association of Mississippi, said community health centers in the state have a long history of filling gaps in services for Mississippi’s poorest residents. “Back in the day, there were times when community health centers would actually go out and dig wells for their patients.”

Central Mississippi Health Services had been gifting water to residents about twice a month since February 2021, after a winter storm left Jackson without water for weeks.

But in August, conditions got so bad again that Sanders pleaded with local radio show listeners to call the center if they couldn’t find water. Many Jackson residents cannot travel to city distribution sites due to work schedules, lack of transportation, or physical impairments.

“Now, all of a sudden, I’m a water guy,” Sanders said.

One photo shows Thelma Kinney Cornelius in her garage with a table full of water bottles.
Thelma Kinney Cornelius stores water in her garage from Howard Sanders of Central Mississippi Health Services.(Renuka Reasom/KHN)

Thelma Kinney Cornelius, 72, first heard about Sanders’ water supply on her radio. She has not been able to drive since undergoing treatment for bowel cancer in 2021. She rarely cooks these days. But she made an exception a few Sundays ago, going through the bottled water issue to make a pot of rice and peas.

“It’s a lot of adjustment trying to get into that routine,” Cornelius said. “It’s hard.”

On the day Jackson’s boil water advisory was lifted, Sanders was diagnosed with a hernia, probably from lifting heavy water cases, he said. Still, the next day, Sanders drove around the Verdun Addition neighborhood with other volunteers, knocking on people’s doors and asking if they needed water.

He said he has no plans to stop water delivery as Jackson residents continue to deal with the long-term consequences of the summer crisis. Residents are still concerned about lead or other harmful contaminants in the water.

“It’s like a little third-world country here,” Sanders said. “In all honesty, we’ll probably be on it until next year.”

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