Frigid temperatures and torrential snowfall have largely left the South after a cold front gripped the region weeks ago, but some cities are still facing dire infrastructure failures caused by the cold and their state’s lack of preparation.
Most of the people suffering the most untenable circumstances ― including a now weekslong water shortage in Mississippi ― are in predominantly Black and brown communities, and their experiences offer a grim look at the reality of racial inequality under the worsening global climate crisis.
When the extreme cold first touched the South in mid-February, Texas officials ― specifically, Texas Republicans ― were roundly criticized for their long-standing opposition to weatherizing the state’s power supply, a progressive energy priority. But widespread infrastructure failures during and after the cold front weren’t confined to Texas.
In recent days, Jackson, Mississippi, has also come into national focus as some parts of the majority-Black city enter day 13 of a water shortage caused by main breaks. Jackson is nearly 80% Black and has nearly 170,000 residents. Those using the city’s water system have been on a boil water advisory for the past week, meaning the city has advised them that water main breaks caused by the cold have left some areas with no water, low water pressure or potentially toxic material traveling through the pipes. Officials in the state and private donors have been distributing bottled water to help residents weather the shortage.
Just as in Texas, the cold has left Jackson’s infrastructure crumbling, reigniting historic debates over energy, climate and race in an agriculture-dependent state whose predominantly white power brokers wield control over much of the land.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba (D) said on NBC Monday afternoon that his city’s water mains are “not meant to withstand weather in the teens” and that weatherizing them costs “hundreds of millions of dollars, of which the city of Jackson does not have in its coffers.”
Lumumba called on the Mississippi legislature and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to allocate funds to support Jackson’s faltering water system, and he condemned a veto Reeves issued last year blocking legislation proposed to help Jacksonians pay for their water bills. Lumumba said Monday the governor’s veto and some lawmakers’ resistance to improving the water system is impacting the recovery effort now.
“We are in a reactive mode where we’re trying to fix the bike while we’re riding it,” he said.
Lumumba recently called the crisis an “act of God” and defended his administration’s handling of the ongoing water shortage on Monday. Reeves, meanwhile, said Jackson would be provided with tankers of nonpotable water to “jumpstart the system.”
Last Tuesday, Reeves dispatched the National Guard to Jackson, saying troops would “complete the mission” to restore clean water in the city. In the past week, Reeves also floated the possibility that his administration could take the controversial step of giving Mississippi state control over Jackson’s water system.