For Rukia Lumumba, this time was different.
In February 2021, a winter weather warning prompted the native of Jackson, Mississippi, to take precautions, just as she had two years ago when another winter storm hit her hometown. She adjusted the thermostats in her home, filled her bathtub with water, and left the water faucets dripping so the pipes wouldn’t freeze, she said.
The next morning, Lumumba could get only a trickle of water from her faucets. Days went by, and her water did not return.
“This storm lasted four to five days,” she said. “The ice was so thick. The conditions were so different.” Ice covered the roads for days, she said, and stores like Walmart sold out of cases of bottled water.
The back-to-back winter storms in February left about 43,000 homes without access to running water for nearly a month. The cold temperatures caused water plant equipment to freeze and centuries-old water pipes to break, city officials say, which will take more than $2 billion to fix. The water pressure dropped, the system shut down, and service interruptions were disproportionately felt in communities farthest from the city’s water sources, especially in West and South Jackson, areas whose populations are largely Black.
In the time of crisis, grassroots organizing helped the community secure essential needs where the local and state governments came up short. Lumumba, the executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, received several text messages and phone calls alerting her of others without water. The Jackson-based nonprofit describes itself as a community resource, capacity-building incubator and training ground for transformative justice in the South. Lumumba immediately began to organize from her home, calling folks she knew throughout the state who could help distribute water, blankets, and other essential items, she said.
“Literally, just after the storm, we hit the ground running, even with ice on the ground,” she said. “We began to safely distribute things for people, and it was a very dangerous job. There were times I myself felt that I wasn’t gonna make it.”
The roads topped with ice and store closures made it nearly impossible to reach the community.
The city of Jackson operates two water treatment plants, some of whose pipes date back to the 1900s. The Ross Barnett Reservoir and the Pearl River serve as sources for the water utilities, said Jackson Public Works Director Charles Williams at a March 19 virtual town hall.
It isn’t uncommon for residents to experience unsafe drinking water, and boil water notices are common, a city spokesperson said, but frequency of notices varies, depending on the situation. Jackson’s Public Works director told WLBT-TV that, for example, the city experienced nearly 500 main breaks in 2010, and almost 300 more in 2018. High levels of lead were found in the…