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Jackson mayor speaks on water crisis, next steps in recovery

(NEW YORK) — The main pump at the main water treatment facility in Jackson, Mississippi, shut down due to flooding that worsened longstanding issues, leaving up to 180,000 people without access to running water in their homes.

A state of emergency was declared on Tuesday by Gov. Tate Reeves and it was announced public schools would shift their classes online.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba spoke with “ABC News Prime” about the roots of this water crisis, which have been unfolding over multiple years, how the city plans to recover with a focus on equity and sustainability, and how people tuning in can help.

PRIME: Joining me now is the mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Lumumba. Mayor, first off, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us during such a challenging time for you.

LUMUMBA: Thank you for having me, and thank you for lifting up the challenges that my community is suffering from.

PRIME: Of course. So now that a state of emergency has been declared, what is your first order of business here with these funds to help your community?

LUMUMBA: Well, first, let me reiterate that we were excited and we welcomed this support with open arms. We feel like we’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years, lifting up the fact that these are challenges that first and foremost are beyond partisan. These are human rights challenges.

And so we’ve been saying that it’s not a matter of if our systems would fail, but when our systems fail, and we’ve seen it far too frequently. So we’ve talked with the State Department of Health and MEMA, who have assured us that they’re going to have boots on the ground to help supplement our staffing needs and the critical repairs. They have committed to approximately 50% of the cost of the repairs in a shorter time frame to get to those contracts, due to the fact that it’s under an emergency condition.

PRIME: And so, mayor, spell it out for us. How did we get here? How do we get to this point?

LUMUMBA: Yeah. This is due to decades, decades and decades, of possibly 30 years or more of deferred maintenance, a lack of capital improvements made to the system, a lack of a human capital, a workforce plan that accounted for the challenges that our water treatment facility suffers from. We’ve had hotter summers, colder winters and more precipitation each year. And it’s taking a toll on our infrastructure. And so we need the support to not only create sustainability and equity in our system, but to also weatherize our system.

PRIME: A major overhaul, certainly. And mayor, water has been a crisis in your city for some time now. In fact, in November of last year, our congressional correspondent Rachel Scott went to Jackson and reported on an elementary there that had no water. The kids had to use porta potties. They also had no water at home. You were interviewed at that time, and this is a sentiment that you’ve already reiterated this evening: that it’s not a matter of if these systems will fail, but rather when these systems will fail. And unfortunately, what we’re seeing right now, you were right. But previous to this, how high up have you taken your concerns? And do you feel that anyone was receptive to the gravity of the situation?

LUMUMBA: Well, first and foremost, I believe that the moment in which you’re recounting, I believe that the administrator of the EPA was with me and he was looking at the concerns of our water distribution system, touring the school, and was scheduled for that tour, only right before he came, for the school to have to redirect its students to another location due to the persistent water challenges. This is something that we don’t only suffer from citywide.

But more precisely, inequitably, we suffer in the southern portion of our city most disproportionately. And so it’s something that, we not only need to create sustainability but equity, realizing that some of the most impoverished parts of our city are feeling the brunt of this challenge more consistently and worse off than the rest of our city. And so this is something that, you know, I believe we have to continue to ring the alarm around, something that we have to continue to call on all levels that have responsibility.

PRIME: And make sure those dollars go where they need to go. And you’ve said Jackson in some ways is a poster child for a community that suffers from environmental justice issues. So tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that.

LUMUMBA: Well, you know, just as we review the EPA’s Justice40 initiative, when it talks about income disparities and the diversity of communities that it had in mind, Jackson is the primary example of a community that fits and checks all of the boxes of those initiatives. When we talk about the fact that we’ve had great disparity in the funding of the resources in Jackson compared to other portions of our state over generations, I think that it is time that we represent a new model, that we represent a new day, and we demonstrate from the city level to the state level. And beyond that, we’re all on board trying to make certain that residents, that people, that human beings don’t have to deal with the challenge of not having the basic resource of water.

PRIME: Right. And water really is a statewide issue there. What is your message to other mayors who could be facing similar challenges here?

LUMUMBA: Well, I would say that, you know, as we have dealt with these persistent challenges, we know just how dehumanizing this can be. We know how humiliating it can be. And so, you know, as we push forward for a better Jackson, a better state, a better nation, we need to push for dignity, economy which reflects the sustainable development goals, that give people dignity, that reveals a better quality of life for them each and every day.

PRIME: Sure. And I know right now we don’t have a timeline for when this will be fixed. So how can people around the country that might be watching right now? How can they help?

LUMUMBA: Well, I would encourage them to reach out to the city. They can do so through our website www.jacksonms.gov, through our Constituent Services division, if they look to provide water donations, if they can help just lift up to those in leadership that support.

PRIME: Okay. Certainly a little highlight there. Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, thank you so much for joining us.

LUMUMBA: Thank you.

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