In mid-February, unprecedented winter storms swept through the southern United States, crippling transportation and leaving millions without power. Nearly three weeks later, thousands of residents in Jackson, Mississippi are still without clean running water. This event is another reminder of how the climate catastrophe exacerbates the existing inequities and vulnerabilities perpetuated by capitalism. Meanwhile, the state government’s glacial response is a testament to lawmaker’s racist contempt for the Black community in Mississippi and disregard for Black lives more broadly.
The crisis began during the week of February 15, when winter storms caused temperatures to plummet nearly forty degrees below the seasonal average for the southern United States. While the critical failure of the privatized electrical grid in the state of Texas attracted national media attention—with reports of nearly 4 million residents left without power, tragic (and preventable) deaths by exposure and carbon monoxide poisoning, and absentee government officials — the storms’ impact on the regions’ water supply received much less attention. Nearly half a million Texans were left without running water—along with most of Jackson, Mississippi, one of the nation’s largest majority-Black cities.
During the storms water processing machinery froze, leading to multiple burst water mains that deprived many of the city’s 160,000 residents of running water. By February 22, the state health department reported that of those with water, 300,000 Mississippians were under a boil-water advisory due to the possible contamination of the water supply. Efforts to restore water were further compounded by mechanical failures last Thursday. The crisis doubtlessly created unhygienic conditions that could accelerate the ongoing Covid pandemic as residents scrambled to find bottled water and travelled to gather non-potable water to flush toilets.
While Republican Governor Tate Reeves eventually activated the Mississippi National Guard to assist with water distribution, this inadequate and late response came alongside disparaging remarks about the city’s majority-Black residents, many of whom live in poverty. “I do think it’s really important that the City of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money,” Reeves said. These snide remarks come at the same time that Reeves and Texas Governor Greg Abbot flaunted public health guidance dropping mask mandates and urging the premature opening of businesses in the midst of the pandemic.
Governor Tate Reeves open contempt for the city of Jackson fits squarely within a longstanding conflict between the state legislature — a blindingly white, conservative body preserved by decades of voter suppression in the Blackest US state — and the city of Jackson, which, since white flight to nearby suburbs began in the 1970s, has become majority-Black.
It is no coincidence that the Ross R. Barnett Reservoir — which supplies the majority of Jackson and the surrounding area’s water supply — was named after the unapologetic segregationist governor who spearheaded massive resistance to the Mississippi freedom struggle during the 1960s. The landmark’s questionable namesake hints to the current crisis’s roots in Jim Crow oppression and the reason that majority Black residents are allowed to go so long without clean water.