Jackson residents desperately await federal infrastructure funding amid water crisis

As the Democrats push President Joe Biden’s economic agenda, communities in Jackson, Mississippi, hope federal funding from the recently passed bipartisan spending bill and proposed Build Back Better bill finally translate into one thing: access to clean water.

Each day, more than 400 students at Wilkins Elementary School in Jackson, Mississippi, are forced to leave the classroom to use outdoor portable toilets. The city’s crumbling water infrastructure has resulted in low water pressure making the toilets in the school building virtually unusable.

“We have challenges with the infrastructure with our water and access to clean water that flows. Having access to toilets that are housed within the walls of our building and not having to go outside is a challenge for us – a huge one “Challenge,” Cheryl Brown, the principal of Wilkins Elementary School, told ABC News.

She said students lose up to 20 minutes of critical class time three times a day due to having to take outdoor toilet breaks.

But since young children are prone to accidents, educators and supervisors keep buckets nearby to manually flush the indoor toilets when students cannot go outside.

“We talk about things being fair. It’s not fair when my boys and girls have to go outside every day to relieve themselves … It’s demeaning. It’s inhuman on all levels,” Brown said. “It’s not acceptable, but unfortunately it’s the norm for us right now.”

City-issued “kettle” notices often cause last-minute delays and school closings, forcing teachers, students and parents to switch to virtual learning.

“The district needs more than just band-aid. You need an operation,” said Dr. Errick Greene, the superintendent of the Jackson Public School District.

“Try as we could try, there are a lot of really smart people, hard-working people who stand up for the students and do everything they can every day,” said Green.

A city in crisis

The challenges at Wilkins Elementary reflect the infrastructure problems plaguing residents across Jackson.

Poverty, poor broadband, constant water mains interruptions, battered streets and crumbling real estate have plagued the largely black city for decades.

Earlier this year, nearly 150,000 Jackson residents were without safe drinking water for a month after a city-wide “water boiling recommendation” remained in effect after a storm. Months later, sewage and poor water distribution plague the area.

“We are the figurehead of a community that suffers from environmental justice problems,” said Jackson’s Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

“This serves as a cycle of humiliation in which people are humiliated for not being able to have a basic resource like water, not being able to bathe on demand, cleaning their homes, and all things and clean all surfaces that need to be cleaned, “added Lumumba.

While tests show the city’s water is safe, Lumumba said the outdated system may cause low water pressure that is ineffective at preventing toxic sediments and bacteria from contaminating drinking water.

“The challenge Jackson has dealt with over time has been primarily with our distribution system. If our system, which operates without pressure, is sinking pounds per square inch (PSI), it is not enough to get water into the furthest points it has to travel. said Lumumba.

The Mayor of Jackson attributed decades of divestments and a lack of shared determination to prioritize rebuilding the city’s water infrastructure for the current decay. He said that without state and federal intervention, “the issue is not if these systems fail, but when these systems fail.”

“Our income or what we receive is not enough to meet our needs. So we need more support,” said Lumumba.

Jackson is one of many American cities hoping for new federal investment from the Infrastructure Bill to modernize their aging water system.

The recently passed $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which went into effect last Monday, sees $ 55 billion for water improvements, $ 110 billion for roads and bridges, and $ 65 billion for broadband technology before.

However, some local officials fear that Biden’s touted “once in a lifetime” infrastructure bill may not be enough to repair Mississippi’s infrastructure.

The estimated $ 459 million in federal funding Mississippi expects for water improvements across the state is less than half of the $ 2 billion Lumumba claims it needs in Jackson.

“It won’t be [enough]. It is a start, however, and we are grateful for all resources, “said Lumumba.

The Biden government has placed equity at the center of its agenda as a major pillar of its infrastructure agenda; however, the promise of an equitable distribution of funds in underserved communities will largely be left to states.

In a GOP-led state like Mississippi, which has a history of divestments and underfunding in low-income and minority areas, some South Jackson residents worry about whether federal funds will get to their communities while the state committee decides where the funds are should be distributed.

“Our residents are very aware of this story and understand that we are in a battle,” said Lumumba. “In communities like Jackson, Mississippi, where we can’t just rely on a legislature to do the right thing and fund Jackson the way it needs to be funded, we need to make sure there is accountability.”

While kicking off an environmental justice tour of the south on November 15, Michael Regan, the EPA’s administrator, told ABC News that the Biden government’s Build Back Better agenda will ensure federal funds are distributed fairly among communities who need it the most.

“This is a huge opportunity for this country. It is a huge opportunity for these environmental justice communities that have been disproportionately affected for far too long,” said Regan.

“I want to work with local mayors, governors, and elected officials to ensure these precious resources are channeled into allocating those precious resources to projects that are ready to accept and nurture those who need them most,” added Regan later added.

Jackson Public School District officials told ABC News that they are “holding their breath” in hopes that funding will reach their students.

“If I were a wealthy woman, I would fix this infrastructure myself because they deserve it. Students think they are the crème de la crème because they are,” Brown said. “This water crisis doesn’t define it.”

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