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Why it could take up to $2 billion to fix the water system in Jackson, Miss.


Just over one year ago, winter storms buried Jackson, Miss., in snow and ice. The storms revealed shortcomings in the city's infrastructure. Today, the state capital is still trying to fix its water system, which is so troubled that millions of federal dollars will not be enough. Here's Bobbi-Jeanne Misick from the Gulf States Newsroom.

BOBBI-JEANNE MISICK, BYLINE: In the cluttered office of Jackson city engineer Charles Williams Jr., there are stacks of papers, towers of boxes and reams of industrial drawings.

CHARLES WILLIAMS JR: All of these on this wall right here are water-related projects. There's drainage, bridges, wastewater over here.

MISICK: Last year, Williams faced the most challenging moment in his career when two winter storms hit back to back in a matter of days, crippling the main treatment plant.

WILLIAMS: It was crazy. Number of calls for low water pressure or just no water at all, especially in South and West Jackson.

BAYLIS MCDANIELS: So, yeah, it was like, where can we find water?

MISICK: Baylis McDaniels was living with her daughters and grandchildren in South Jackson when the storms hit. That began a month-long daily search for water.

MCDANIELS: Water to flush the toilets. We had to have water to take baths, water to cook with, water to do everything.

MISICK: South and West Jackson have the largest Black populations and highest poverty levels in the city. Those areas are also farthest away from the plant, so they were last to have water service restored. Gino Womack is program director of the community group Operation Good. Driving around on the anniversary of the storm, he remembers people were angry.

GINO WOMACK: They didn't understand, how is it that we live here in a city, and we can't even have working pipes?


MISICK: On a windy day in February, Operation Good volunteers leave cases of bottled water on South Jackson residents' doorsteps.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: Y'all need water? Water?

MISICK: In 2016, the city reported that water in some homes had dangerously high lead levels. Now, residents are suing the city, saying their kids were exposed to lead for years.

MCDANIELS: It's always water issues in South Jackson.

MISICK: Residents like McDaniels have grown used to regular boil water notices. Even when there's not an alert, McDaniels and her family don't trust the tap water for drinking or cooking - only bathing.

MCDANIELS: They bathe in dirt water. (Laughter) Oh, I'm sorry. Because that's what it tastes like - dirt. Like it's coming out of a dirty pipe or something.

MISICK: City engineer Williams says the need to update Jackson's aging and leaky water system is critical.

WILLIAMS: And our residents cannot afford to improve our infrastructure without external funding resources.

MISICK: Federal money is on the way. The city already received $8 million from the American Rescue Plan. Still, the water woes are one reason McDaniels is left with a bad taste in her mouth for the city.

MCDANIELS: I'm leaving. I'm just ready to be done with Jackson all together.

MISICK: The mayor says it could take up to $2 billion to update Jackson's system. But the whole state of Mississippi is getting only $75 million for water and sewage from an infrastructure package passed last November. With the long list of needs, from plants to pipes to personnel, it's only a drop in the bucket.

For NPR News, I'm Bobbi-Jeanne Misick in Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLEN BEASLEY'S "REST SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick