Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said he had deep concerns as an unusually strong winter weather system approached. He had been paying attention to reports of widespread power outages and water shortages in Texas.
He also knew that when these unusual – but inevitable – events occurred, the city had limited resources to respond to.
He met with his leadership team and prepared a plan. It was easy: close the city.
“We’re pretty much preparing,” Lumumba said on February 16, “to close the city. We have some resources, but that’s a baseline that doesn’t really end.”
The mayor also knew that the cold weather could reveal significant deficiencies in the city’s outdated infrastructure. It had before.
But how bad would it be this time?
The answer became clearer in the days that followed as the storms put a prolonged freeze on Jackson, directly leading to one of the city’s worst water crises in history, shutting down a system that supplies about 175,000 people.
How it happened is now under review by the Mississippi State Department of Health.
“That was a completely different situation,” said Lumumba. “We’ve dealt with cold weather emergencies before, but this time getting water actually became a problem.”
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The water was too cold
Think of the city’s water system like making sweet tea, said Jackson City Councilor De’Keither Stamps.
“Nobody in the south tries to make sweet tea with a jug full of cold water and ice,” he said. “Because you know what’s going to happen. The sugar will clump in the water.”
“You need warmer water in order for it to mix properly. This also applies to the chemicals that are used to treat the water,” said Stamps of the water treatment process.
“They are ineffective in really cold water.”
The stamps then turned to the tolls that the freezing temperatures had on the devices in the factories.
“Now,” he continued, “think about the other problem with making tea. The spoon you use to mix the sugar is frozen.”
Well, that’s exactly what happened to the plant. ”
The closest comparison to what Jackson witnessed was January 2018, when temperatures plummeted twice in two weeks into the teenage and mid-20s. These conditions created city-wide water pressure problems and over 200 water pipe ruptures across the city.
Days after the last severe frost, the cold weather created problems at the city’s two water treatment plants, which relied on water intake from the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
In addition, the water was too cold to be treated with chemicals that ensure proper drinking water quality. And with transportation being disrupted due to a thicket of ice on state roads, it was impossible to bring in additional treatment chemicals.
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Frozen equipment at the factory
At the same time, the weather froze the most important machines in the plant and stopped the grinding process. Williams said the actuators responsible for opening and closing water valves are frozen, as are many of the plant’s electronic components. The freezing temperatures had a particular influence on the system’s raw water strainers. When working properly, the screens prevent debris from entering the city’s water intake systems. The screens froze and the system quickly depressurized, Williams said.
All of the city’s water supply began to dry up not only in the factories but also in reservoirs and storage tanks across the city. When water pressure dropped and Jackson residents were stuck in their homes due to severe freezing, the system saw an increased demand for water from customers, adding further strain to the water supply.
In the days that followed, from the beginning of the winter weather system, the screens would again become an ongoing problem at the plant and would continue until the city generally recovered.
Another known problem in Jackson has also extended system recovery. When the machines at the plant began to thaw and the water pressure was gradually restored, the water pipes broke through the city.
Jackson, like many cities in the south, has an outdated water distribution system. Some pipes are made of concrete or box iron and break when the water pressure increases. Many are too small for the neighborhoods they serve and are the same size as when they were first installed, in some cases up to 80 years ago. In other cases, when the weather warms and the Yazoo clay shifts underground, the pipes will burst.
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City officials are now seeking donations to ensure the water crisis does not recur.
Councilor Ashby Foote said the city needs to winterize its plants, but others, including Lumumba, say a lot more is needed to fix the system.
The mayor has requested $ 47 million from lawmakers to make improvements. The city could see an additional $ 44 million from the federal CARES Act package, but Lumumba warns that money will be needed to reimburse the cost of the coronavirus for which it was designed, rather than the water system City.
Like many cities, Jackson has suffered from a decade-long flight of wealthy white taxpayers to the Jackson subway suburbs. It has reduced the city’s tax base and its ability to sustain its infrastructure.
Lumumba said it will take nearly a billion dollars to properly invest in the system. Jackson, the capital, definitely can’t do this on its own.
Otherwise, the same situation could occur again. If it’s not a winter storm, it could be something else, Williams said.
“We’re working on funding, but a lot more is needed,” said Williams. “This is a process that we need to push forward over the next few years. We are still a long way from the forest. This particular event really shows how fragile the system is.
“But it could be a different scenario next time.”
Contact Justin Vicory at 769-572-1418 or [email protected]. Follow @justinvicory on Twitter.