Kai: I'm Kai Wright from WNYC in for Tanzina. This is The Takeaway. The city of Jackson, Mississippi is weeks into a water crisis, brought on by the same winter storms that rocked Texas last month. While water is now returning to some homes and businesses, others still don't have running water. A water boil order remains in place for the city's 160,000 residents, 80% of whom are Black.
This isn't the first water crisis to hit Jackson and it's one that's been years in the making as the city's infrastructure has suffered decades of neglect and underinvestment from the state and from the federal government. For more on this, we're joined by Donna Ladd, who is editor of the Mississippi Free Press and Jackson Free Press. Donna, welcome to the show.
Donna Ladd: Thank you.
Kai: First off, Donna, how much of Jackson has been affected by this current water crisis?
Donna Ladd: All of Jackson has been affected in one way or another. I never lost water access, but we've been boiling water since February 16th, so no fresh water, but early on, tens of thousands of people just didn't have water access at all and some of them still don't because of the water pressure issues.
Kai: When you say you've been boiling water since February 16th, help people understand what you mean by that? Just in a day-to-day kind of way. What does that mean for your life?
Donna Ladd: It means that you have to think about everything you're doing that involves water. It's like you can't have ice, you can't drink water without boiling it. I boil water three times in a kettle before having a cup of tea and I'm a lot better off than many people in the city, but that's been my reality for the past month. It also means buying a lot of water, if you can afford it.
Kai: Have certain parts of the city been affected more than others? I'm thinking particularly about race and income here. Is everybody feeling it the same, regardless of that, or one part hit more than others?
Donna Ladd: Overall, the whole city was hit, at least from the boil water parts of it, the lack of access to safe water initially, but things come back online quicker often for the white neighborhoods. South Jackson and West Jackson have been really hit the hardest and those are majority Black neighborhoods communities that have been in many ways devastated by white flight and disinvestment over the years already. Those are the neighborhoods that are really getting hit that did not have potable water, didn't have any water and some still don't. Those are majority Black, certainly.
Kai: When you say South and West Jackson, is that a geographic issue? Why are those two areas hit the hardest?
Donna Ladd: Some of it is technical in the sense of, as I understand it, where the water treatment plants are located, issues like elevation. Now, you could spend some time tracing all of those things backward to where the water treatment plants are located, which are more on the wider side of Jackson and into the edge of the wider suburbs.
It's technical, but what's very important to say is that it's disinvestment and it's the state and the federal government pulling back support of cities like Jackson so that we haven't been able to afford the repairs that are needed to the system to keep things upgraded. Ultimately, it's about an 80% majority Black city these days that suffers because of racism and the unwillingness of state leaders to work with Jackson to solve these issues. Then also as we're discovering, as we look deeper into it, historic disinvestment from the federal government.
Kai: There was a ton of national media coverage in the aftermath of what happened in Texas. The same things were happening there in Mississippi. Why do you think the situation there hasn't gotten the same level of attention?
Donna Ladd: That's typical for Mississippi. I think it's a complicated answer. A lot of it has to do with, I think the national psychology of seeing Mississippi as this terrible place that gets what it deserves. I think that's a bipartisan bias that also infiltrates a lot of the media. One of our leaders says or does something terrible and Twitter fills up with statements about how-- just pull all help from the state of Mississippi because we're such a terrible place.
I think that's rooted in our history as being the most outwardly, obviously racist state with the most race violence. Sure, but that doesn't mean that we're not the state with the highest proportion of African-Americans in the nation, 38%, and a lot of good people here who are working harder than I've ever seen anywhere every single day to try to change things.
Kai: It sounds like you're saying that it's not just that these stereotypes affect the cultural conversation about Mississippi, but it actually directly impacts the resources that are sent there.
Donna Ladd: Oh, it absolutely does. If there's anything Mississippians can agree on across divides is how we get talked about. Now, a lot of it's deserved. This issue needs to be talked about nationally and the racism that keeps the state trying to control the city and giving it very few resources or taking its resources away, such as the airport. All of those things need to be part of the national conversation, but at the same time, those things don't often breakthrough because people roll their eyes at Mississippi and we're seen as such a "red state," a language I hate by the way, and then we don't get considered for the kinds of resources that we actually need.
We are known as a taker state because we do get a lot of federal resources, but it's not an intelligent national conversation that really looks at Mississippi. Mississippi is the microcosm of what's going on in the whole nation and in cities across America. If you can't look at your arguably poorest state, poverty-wise and health-wise, where our leaders, they resist Medicaid expansion and other solutions. If you can't look at that state and say, "What's going on there is a national crisis that we all need to look at our role in and what we can do about it," then I don't think you're real serious about helping poor people in America.
Kai: What about infrastructure in Jackson before we have to let you go? What does this tell us about what investments are needed right now in Jackson?
Donna Ladd: Mayor Lumumba likes to say that there's at least $2 billion needed for our water and sewer infrastructure, and maybe more than that ultimately. The state can afford everything we need, especially after being so irresponsible and letting this drag out for so long. What we are figuring out that is really needed is for the state, the city, and the federal government to come together and be at the same table and really look at what can happen long-term.
Sure, the state right now needs to help staunch the bleeding, but that conversation needs to happen right now about what can be done, not just for Jackson, but to help rebuild this basic infrastructure, that's about human life and how to get past this racism and bigotry toward our cities and toward a state like Mississippi.
Kai: Donna Ladd is the editor of the Mississippi Free Press and the Jackson Free Press. Donna, thanks for joining us.
Donna Ladd: Thank you so much, Kai.
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