The sense of dread on Christmas Eve felt all too familiar.
The faucets ran dry again. The showers produced nothing. The city of Jackson, Mississippi, plunged into its third major water outage in less than two years, crippled, leaking infrastructure withering before another bout of extreme weather.
For many here, the latest crisis reinvigorated feelings of abandonment and anger that had barely dissipated from the last major outage, just a few months earlier.
As she sat on her deep brown sofa, Anita Carter recalled the realization her water was gone with calm indignation. She scrapped plans for Christmas dinner. Found the bottles she keeps in reserve. Left buckets in the yard to collect rainwater. But, two weeks later, there is still next to nothing, as pressure failed to return to the pipes in her home, and boil-water advisories remain in many parts of the city.
“It seems like you have to be without it longer every time,” she said, as her eight grandchildren scampered around the home in the suburb of south Jackson. “There’s so much stress.”
With water outages and boil advisories becoming increasingly familiar to Jackson’s 150,000 residents – caused by an aging and underfunded system that routinely fails to withstand extreme cold – Carter and her family invited the Guardian to spend a day with them as they entered their third week without water.
It underlined the daily struggle faced by thousands in this predominantly Black city, where poorer neighborhoods have routinely borne the brunt of the ongoing disaster. Simple tasks become complex or insurmountable. Greater burdens are placed on those living further from resources. And, for many, the days are centered around an often frantic search for clean and fresh water.
Thursday was supposed to be the first day back at school for Carter’s grandchildren. But with low water pressure throughout the city, all 33 of Jackson’s schools remained closed, sending pupils to virtual learning at home.
As morning broke, and her grandchildren arrived from their mother’s home, Carter was faced with a multitude of tasks intensified by empty pipes: cooking a meal for a family of 10, washing the pile of dishes from last night, making sure her grandchildren were paying attention to their lessons.
The household relies on two large stock pots to boil water on the electric coil stove, and Carter carried a heavy case of bottles into the kitchen, pouring dozens into the pot. The sheer volume means it takes more than 30 minutes to bring it to boil before any dishwashing or food prep can commence.
“There’s never enough,” she said, as her 10-year-old granddaughter Miracle fetched more bottles in between virtual classes. “We’re always looking for more water.”
They stockpile cases of water around the living room, and tuck non-potable water for flushing the toilet into cupboards. Mark Jackson, her 32-year-old son, who lives at home, is often tasked with finding more.
He arrives early at the distribution locations around the city where queues can sometimes wind for hours. On other occasions he has driven to the neighboring city of Ridgeland, which has a separate water system, equipped with empty bottles and jugs that he fills at motels or fast food restaurants to bring home.
He has lived with sickle cell anemia all his life, and he needs to remain constantly hydrated to ward off pain crises. But on New Year’s Eve he found himself bed-bound in pain.
“It makes you mad sometimes,” he said, watching over his twin six-year-old nieces Akayla and Ma’kayla as they completed their math class online. “But it doesn’t work to dwell on it.”
The same morning, Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, held a press conference to discuss plans to drastically overhaul the city’s crumbling water infrastructure. In November last year the entire system was taken under federal government oversight after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the city in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The move followed a hellish summer in Jackson, after heavy flooding and power outages resulted in severe water shortages for weeks.
After years of chronic underfunding by the Republican-led state government, the US Congress apportioned $600m to pay for the redevelopment as part of the government spending package signed in December.
Four Republicans from Mississippi’s congressional delegation, Representatives Michael Guest, Trent Kelly and Steven Palazzo and Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, voted against the bill.
None responded to repeated requests for comment from the Guardian.
As he addressed the press on Thursday, and despite the boil notices and low pressure in parts of the city, Mayor Lumumba struck a tone of cautious optimism.
“We did not get here overnight, and our full recovery will take many years, but we are well on our way,” he said. “I look forward to better days.”
The mayor was flanked by Ted Henifin, the city’s new third-party water system administrator appointed by the federal government, and, according to local reports, neither would say when the funding would become available or what the order and process of the repairs would be.
Henifin said that pressure was being restored throughout the city and anticipated a lifting of the boil advisory in the near future. But, he added, “even if we have just one person without water, that is too many”.
In the neighborhood of Queens-Magnolia Terrace, in the city’s north-west, most households were still without pressure.
April Jackson, Anita Carter’s daughter and the mother of her eight grandchildren, was at work for the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign – which is preparing to file a series of lawsuits alleging constitutional violations and breaches of the Fair Housing Act on behalf of the city’s residents – going door to door and dropping off bottled water to residents who had requested help from the city. The group is part of a rapid response coalition, consisting of around 30 volunteers who make deliveries every day. But need has surpassed resources every day since Christmas.
At one doorstep, 73-year-old David McGowan spoke of how, for three days during Christmas, he had no access to bottled water at all, and relied on rationed water from buckets and jugs he had filled before the water went out. Both his cars weren’t running and he had no way of reaching the local church where bottled water was being distributed.
“I just feel let down,” he said. “This is no way to live.”
A few blocks away Theresa Rattler, 45, stood in her doorway in a bright pink dressing gown, another neighbor with no water pressure since Christmas. Her bottled stocks had gotten so low she had begun skipping her diabetes medication.
As she finished her drop-offs for the day, in the mid-afternoon, Jackson headed back to her mother’s home where her eldest sons, Jacob and Jamaris, bounded out of the house to help carry in more cases of water.
All four burners were set to boil as Anita and Mark prepared cooking and bathing water for the children.
Anita recalled how the family had moved from the town of Louisville in the state’s north-east so Mark could receive the regular blood transfusions he needed to treat his sickle cell anemia.
“If I could go back, I would,” she said. “There’s water in other places. I just don’t understand why we can’t have it here, in a city.”
With the meal almost ready – spaghetti, boiled broccoli, corn on the cob and baked chicken – she moved to the bathroom carrying a small pan of boiling water from the stove.
She poured it gently into the small bathroom sink until half full and measured the heat with her fingertips as cold water from another bottle was added.
She lowered her youngest grandchild, five-month-old McKensleigh, into the sink, protecting her head from the taps.
“Hey little lady,” she said as the baby smiled. “I think she’s happy.”
It was a small moment of joy, before she thought again: would there be enough for everyone else?