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Jackson residents face long lines and short supply in a frustrating search for water

Ty Carter fills containers with nonpotable water on Aug. 31 in Jackson, Mississippi. The state's capital is struggling with access to safe drinking water after historic rain and flooding led to a drop in pressure at Jackson's main water-treatment plant on Aug. 29.
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Ty Carter fills containers with nonpotable water on Aug. 31 in Jackson, Mississippi. The state's capital is struggling with access to safe drinking water after historic rain and flooding led to a drop in pressure at Jackson's main water-treatment plant on Aug. 29.

JACKSON, Miss. — Beatrice Gilmore has been trying to get some of the water being handed out around town since she lost nearly all pressure in her taps on Monday. She has spent hours traveling to distribution sites and waiting in line, only to have the stock run out just a few cars ahead of her. So she was excited Wednesday when she finally got one case of water for herself and her sister.

"I will take a sponge bath!" she laughed. She'll also use it for drinking and cooking, a welcome change from the canned food she has been heating up all week. Another man in the line said all he and his son have eaten is cereal.

Historic rain and flooding led to a drop in pressure at Jackson's main water-treatment plant Monday. That has left people with just a trickle of water — Gilmore says hers is "brownish" — or none at all. President Biden has declared a disaster, triggering federal aid, and the state is sending in the National Guard. But until that ramps up, the demand for bottled water is far exceeding what's available.

When Gilmore got one of the last cases, a long line of cars still snaked around the parking lot of a Walmart, which had donated the water. It went in an hour, but Maj. Ethan Frizzel of the Salvation Army said another truck with water would show up soon.

"With gas prices and challenges, we don't want to take any more time from people than necessary to get such a basic human need."

The lack of water has also shut down school buildings and businesses, upending the lives of people like Ayesha Stevenson.

She came to the parking-lot water line with her 5-year-old and 7-year-old in the back seat, because they're now learning remotely. Schools are boiling water to make breakfast and lunch bags for pick up. The poverty rate in Jackson is 25%, and many families rely on those school meals. Stevenson is a cook at a Waffle House that had to close down, so Wednesday was her third day out of work without pay. She said she would need to find something to make up for that loss.

But her biggest frustration is that this is just the latest in a series of water crises. Since the previous one early last year — after a record-setting February freeze — Stevenson has not gone back to tap water because it makes her kids sick.

"I can't even picture myself drinking it," she says. But "you go broke buying food and water all the time. It's very expensive."

In a late-day news conference, Governor Tate Reeves said 600 members of the Mississippi National Guard will deploy on Thursday for a larger-scale distribution of bottled water and hand sanitizer.

"I know it's not easy, nor is it fair, that any of you have to deal with this," he said. "In fact, it's a tremendous burden that you as citizens should not have to shoulder."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.