'We should be living better than this': The US city where residents boil their bath water

·3-min read

On Forest Hill Road in Jackson, Mississippi, is a story which seems to touch on so many of this nation's challenges.

It's the story of Tommy and Celeste, a couple in a city without safe water.

"It is so sad. Something needs to be done. We cannot even flush the toilet or nothing. It is so bad," Celeste tells me.

We're in their kitchen. She turns on the tap. Yesterday there was no water. Today, a trickle but it's not safe. Tomorrow, who knows?

"We can boil the water to take a bath. But we can't take a bath in the water they have coming here. We can't take a bath in that," Tommy says.

He tells me he hasn't had a bath without boiling the water since 2019.

It's a story about shoddy infrastructure, chronic mismanagement, limits on funding. It's made worse by storm damage - the Pearl River burst its banks this past week, damaging a water treatment plant that was hardly fit for purpose anyway.

But Tommy and Celeste feel it's about much more than all that.

"This is mostly the black area. So we only have this problem," says Tommy.

"Everywhere else you go, they have water. And good pressure. In this area we don't because it's mostly black. So I think they must be doing something with this money. They had the money one time but now they don't have the money. To me it's just that they don't care about the black folk in my opinion."

Here in Jackson, it's about improvisation to survive. Celeste guides me around the back of their home.

On the ground, positioned under the roof gutter, she shows me a large plastic bucket.

"We fill this tub to flush the toilet."

She pauses. "We don't really have to live like this. It's like we're going back in the slave days."

It is Tommy who cracks first. "It's very very frustrating. I'm tired…" he says before beginning to cry.

"Don't cry…" Celeste says.

"We should be living better than this," she says sobbing.

"It's really sad. Down here in Mississippi it's really sad. People down here need help bad. It's so sad here."

What an indictment of America this is. Every day now they must drive to a water distribution centre. They wait in a long queue of cars.

The Mississippi National Guard is on hand to help. We watch as young soldiers from across the state load boxes of free bottled water into each vehicle.

It's a signal that the immediate challenges are now being addressed.

But what about this legacy of failure?

It's well known that the Democratic mayor of the city, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, has been asking for much more funding from the state, run by Republicans, for years.

"We made it very clear that we needed support, that we need support, and so that remains the position and we've drafted different efforts to accomplish their feat and so we will continue to do that," he told me.

I asked Mayor Lumumba about the accusations of racism.

"Well I would say this is America and those things are true," he said.

A day earlier, I'd asked the Republican governor, Tate Reeves, why the city is in a such an extraordinary position. He offered only a deflection.

"Well what I would tell you is, and I know that you in press really want to play the blame game and you really want to focus on pitting different people against one another, and that's certainly your priority, and that's fine.

"What we are focused on is the immediate health and welfare of Jackson residents."

No one can tell Tommy, Celeste and the people of Jackson when their water will be safe.

All over this town, quietly and with as much dignity as they can manage, so many are struggling.