Not Just Jackson: Mississippi Organization Takes on Health Threat of Unsafe Water

In late August 2022, storms and flooding caused the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant in Jackson, MS to fail, leaving over 150,000 people without access to safe drinking water for weeks. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency and called in the national guard to help distribute bottled water to those affected.  

The crisis quickly became national news, but for the residents of Jackson, this was an all too familiar struggle. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that between 2020-2022, Jackson issued roughly 300 boil water notices because of contaminated or unsafe water, and similar problems have been documented in the city for decades. 

“I remember visiting my grandparents in Jackson in the eighties before I ever moved here, and my grandmother and grandfather boiled the water for everything,” said Jackson resident Brooke Floyd. “Often times, they had discolored water or things floating in the water. And during the winter, if it dipped below freezing, pipes would break, and you would be without water.” 

Floyd is co-director of the Jackson People's Assembly, a community engagement program within the nonprofit organization People's Advocacy Institute (PAI). PAI is one of six organizations across the country that received funding from the CDC Foundation to increase awareness of the health impacts of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) issues and to help improve these conditions in their communities.  

“This is not just Jackson. There are multiple cities across this country dealing with the same problems,” Floyd said. “And there are people all over this country that don't have clean water right now.” 

A Mississippi National Guard soldier takes water to a person's car at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson, Sept. 1, 2022. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Connie Jones, U.S. Army National Guard

The O.B. Curtis Water Plant

Brown water flowing from a tap in Jackson, MS on September 9, 2022. Photo credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

Members of the People’s Advocacy Institute and the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition setting up water distribution sites for residents during the Jackson water crisis in September 2022. Photo credit: courtesy of PAI

According to the EPA, problems with insufficient or deteriorating water infrastructure affect millions of households across the U.S. Changes in weather patterns, including increased rainfall or extreme temperatures, make water storage, treatment and delivery systems more vulnerable to failure. Unreliable or unsafe water can put people at risk of exposure to water-borne illnesses and other serious health problems such as gastrointestinal issues, developmental delays, organ damage and cancer.  

There are people all over this country that don't have clean water right now.

Repeated water disruptions can also take a significant toll on personal finances and mental health, as people scramble to meet their basic needs and often must buy bottled water or filters. Floyd explained that many Jackson residents live in older homes, and problems with the water system or broken neighborhood pipes can result in costly damage to their aging household plumbing. 

“You have this health concern with your children or your family and now you have a cost that is astronomical,” Floyd said. “All these stressors added to your regular life, it’s almost too much to bear sometimes because, you know, what’s next?” 

During the Jackson water crisis in 2022, PAI mobilized resources and support for residents through the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition (MRRC)—an alliance of over 30 local partner organizations that PAI helped create in 2020 and continues to lead. MRRC worked with the city of Jackson to set up water distribution sites, made bottled water deliveries and conducted wellness checks on seniors and people with critical, health-related needs.  

Brooke Floyd, co-director of the Jackson People's Assembly, next to car full of water filters for residents in Jackson, MS. Photo credit: Courtesy of PAI

Members of the People’s Advocacy Institute and the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition unloading water to provide to residents during the Jackson water crisis in September 2022. Photo credit: courtesy of PAI

Member of the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition holding a water filter for a resident in Jackson, MS. Photo credit: courtesy of PAI

A team member from the People’s Advocacy Institute puts a filter on a faucet in Jackson, MS. Photo credit: Courtesy of PAI

Today PAI continues to send response teams to homes throughout the city to help people assess their water quality and find ways to address contamination issues.  The organization is focusing primarily on South Jackson—the most populated part of the city and the furthest from Jackson’s primary water treatment plant. This predominantly Black community has experienced the worst of the Jackson’s water troubles, including longer and more frequent water disruptions. With support from the CDC Foundation, PAI provided information about water quality and the related health risks, distributed water testing kits and installed 1,000 home water filters for Jackson residents in the past year.  

In November 2022, the federal government appointed an interim third-party manager to oversee Jackson’s water system and bring it up to date, but there are no quick fixes to these longstanding issues. This year, brutally cold January weather across much of the South caused significant water pipe breaks in Jackson, affecting over 12,000 people. Residents are still experiencing localized water disruptions and boil water notices, and many people remain distrustful of the water coming out of their taps.  

Despite the ongoing challenges, Brooke Floyd believes that her hometown will find its way through to a brighter future. 

“Mississippians are good at finding a way, through oftentimes some hell, but finding a way,” Floyd said. “During that water crisis, we all came together as we've done through many water issues. That's what drives me and keeps me hopeful. Jackson is gonna be okay.” 

Display Date