Interrupted access to safe drinking water was common in Jackson, Miss. when Jackson State University President Thomas K. Hudson grew up there.
“It has been an ongoing issue usually centered around weather related events, winter storms and the like,” Hudson told BET.com. “But they’ve become more frequent, with respect to [boil water] warning notices, to the point where they're not always weather related.”
On Sept. 15, Gov. Tate Reeves announced the end of the latest boil-water advisory, which started in late July and continued for more than 40 days.
During that period, the majority Black city also endured several days in which the water pressure was so low that they couldn't bathe, cook and flush toilets. A flood had damaged one of two water-treatment plants.
One day before the governor’s announcement, Hudson said campus life on the HBCU was returning to normal, at least with regards to the water pressure.
At the height of the crisis, low water pressure meant that students couldn’t flush toilets, brush their teeth, take showers or have meals prepared in the dining facilities. It also meant enduring extremely hot classrooms and living spaces because HVAC systems “require robust water pressure.” Consequently, classes were virtual.
Managing the crisis created unexpectedly high expenses. JSU is in the process of compiling the figures, which Hudson estimated will reach into the million dollar range.
“Portable showers are very expensive to run on a day-to day-basis,” he explained. “Getting water for HVAC is also very expensive. So all of those things really require a lot of funding.”
In the aftermath of the crisis, JSU is looking into a long-term solution for the campus community. The university is in the process of commissioning a study to create an independent water system. Hudson expects that study to be completed in the first quarter of 2023.
For LaMiracle Sims, a JSU student, the water crisis was like nothing she had ever experienced before.
“It was somewhat horrendous for me…because water is essential for everyday life,” Sims told BET.com, recalling having to brush her teeth with water from bottles.
But she was surrounded by people who “made it easier for me.” Sims, a forward on the JSU’s women’s basketball team, said the coaching staff, community members and scores of people outside Jackson ensured an abundance of clean water was available.
Sims was at home in Moss Point, Miss. when the state officials issued the July boil-water advisory. Virtual classes didn’t bother her at the height of the water crisis after the new semester began because she was accustomed to online learning in recent years.
“But for my peers, everyone has different capabilities and styles of learning, so I'm pretty sure that it affected some people,” Sims stated.
As JSU develops a strategy to address Jackson’s ongoing water problem, city officials are also searching for long-term solutions.
Following the Pearl River flooding in late August, mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said long-overdue maintenance and short staffing have for years plagued the city’s water system, which was overwhelmed by flooding from heavy rainfall that changed the chemical composition needed for treatment.
Jackson’s population is about 83 percent Black. For decades, city officials couldn’t afford to make timely repairs to the water system as the tax base eroded from white flight to the suburbs when public school integration started in 1970. Today, about 25 percent of the residents live in poverty.
JSU is involved in the racial inequality conversation in the state’s capital that fueled the water crisis.
“We’ve led discussions and research on the long term impact of underfunding and under investment in predominantly Black areas,” Hudson said. “So we've been at the forefront of those discussions and will continue to be at the forefront of our discussion, as we do the work necessary to bring about positive change.”
In addition to leading water distribution drives in the community, JSU students recently participated in a joint press conference on campus between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, governor and mayor. The discussion centered on strategies for fixing the water system long term.
“They had a chance to meet with the EPA administrator to advocate not just for Jackson State University and the students, but also the entire city of Jackson on what needs to happen,” Hudson said.
On Sunday (Sept. 11) the EPA launched an investigation into the water crisis in Jackson, which failed an inspection in 2020.
“There are real life consequences to underinvestment… . And it has a real time effect on our learning,” Hudson said. “However, the resiliency of our students, the resiliency of HBCUs, while we've been able to overcome these challenges, there has to be more investment in these areas surrounding JSU for us to continue to thrive and for us to continue to do the great things that we are known for.”