MEMA, National Guard to distribute water as city’s main water treatment plant fails

Published: Aug. 29, 2022 at 6:52 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The state is stepping in to help as Jackson’s water system is teetering on collapse.

Gov. Tate Reeves held an emergency press conference Monday night, hours after Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said production at the city’s main treatment facility had been cut due to complications from Pearl River flooding.

Not long after Lumumba made that announcement, reports began pouring in from businesses, residents, and state government officials that they no longer had water service.

Reeves said that’s because of a failure at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, the city’s main treatment facility.

“What I am focused on right now is ensuring that we get an incident command center set up at the facility. They will be at O.B. Curtis, first thing tomorrow morning. They will work with the city personnel that are currently there. And we will assess what needs to be done to get the quantity of water flowing as quickly as humanly possible.”

Reeves wasn’t sure how long the state would be assisting the city, but officials said it could be for several months.

The governor said the state had been preparing for a water failure at the plant but was hopeful that failure was still months or weeks away.

“We were told on Friday that there was no way to predict exactly when, but that it was a near certainty that Jackson would fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months,” he said. “We began preparing for a scenario where Jackson will be without running water for an extended period. Over the weekend, we started developing water distribution plans, sourcing tankers, and assessing all the risks associated with an event like this...”

“All this was with the prayer that we would have more time before the system ran into failure,” he added. “Unfortunately, that failure appears to have begun today.”

Reeves told reporters the state will be setting up a unified command center at O.B. Curtis, and that officials with the Mississippi State Department of Health will immediately send in experts to help assess the problem at the facility.

Additionally, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and National Guard will set up distribution sites to provide potable and non-potable water to residents, while Hinds County Emergency Operations had secured water to ensure the fire department could continue to operate when needed.

On top of that, MSDH has approved allowing the city’s J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant to increase its output from 20 million to 30 million gallons of water per day.

Fewell typically serves as a secondary plant to the newer Curtis facility. Curtis is approved to treat up to 50 million gallons of water a day. It was unclear how much production had been cut due to the equipment failures there.

About 150,000 people are impacted by the cuts in service, health department officials said Monday.

“We have immediately organized water for fire safety, which was one of our first priorities... We are organizing the resources to provide water for sanitation and life safety,” Reeves said. “If you have the personal resources to provide for yourself or your neighbors, we are asking Mississippians to please leave these resources for those who absolutely need them.”

Reeves said the state has also offered the mayor “what we believe to be incredibly generous conditions for helping improve the water situation in Jackson.”

“The state has created an incident command structure and is surging our resources to the city’s water treatment facility, and beginning emergency maintenance repairs and improvements,” he said. “We will cashflow the operation and the city will be responsible for half of the costs of the emergency improvements that we make.”

He was unsure what repairs would have to be made at the plant, saying that experts won’t know for sure until they’re inside it.

Meanwhile, Reeves said the mayor had accepted the terms of the agreement in principle. Lumumba was not at the meeting and had not been invited, the governor said when asked.

The conference comes more than a month after WLBT first reported that the state was worried about a critical system failure due to a lack of maintenance at the facility.

The governor outlined several issues at the plant, including the fact that two main pumps there were not in operation, and the city could not give a timeline on when they would be restored.

“I was briefed by the state health department on the discovery that Jackson’s main water treatment has been operating with zero redundancies,” he said. “The main pumps had recently been damaged severely, about the same time as the prolonged boil water notice began, and the facility was operating on smaller backup pumps.”

MSDH issued a boil water notice for all customers on Jackson’s surface water system on July 29. The notice was put in place due to high levels of turbidity taken in water samples. Lumumba initially objected to the order, despite the fact that Jackson issued its own boil water advisory.

Numerous issues have led to the failure at the plant, including a lack of maintenance and a lack of staff.

“A far too small number of heroic frontline workers were trying their hardest to hold the system together, but that it was a near impossibility,” Reeves said. “The state is going to get more operators at O.B. Curtis.”

A WLBT analysis showed that Curtis has just two full-time Class A water operators, a requirement under federal and state statutes.

“Last week, it became evident that we needed to be prepared for the eventuality that occurred today, and actually state resources [were] being marshaled last week,” State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney. “The public health concerns are significant, based on a failure of multiple pumps that pump raw water at O.B. Curtis, severe understaffing at both Fewell Water Plant and O.B. Curtis, very low water pressures and overhead storage tanks, which is why the city of Jackson today, there was very poor water flow and reaching the point to where we can no longer flush the toilets.”

Citing the lack of water, Jackson Public Schools is shifting to virtual learning on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the governor is leaving it up to many state agencies with downtown offices to determine whether they will operate.

The Mississippi Supreme Court, for instance, is going to operate with reduced staff at the Gartin Justice Building on Tuesday, with most staff of the appellate courts and Administrative Office of Courts working remotely.

Mississippi Supreme Court announces that some staffers will work remotely due to Jackson's...
Mississippi Supreme Court announces that some staffers will work remotely due to Jackson's ongoing water crisis.(WLBT)

“We have two water treatment facilities in the city of Jackson Fewell and O.B. Curtis is not operating anywhere near capacity. And we may find out tomorrow it’s not operating at all. We’ll find out,” Reeves said. “But what we do know is that... the quantity of water is moving through the pipes in the city of Jackson, not even speaking to the quality, the quantity is not sufficient to provide the kind of water pressure that we need to do a lot of things.”

“Clearly, it’s not moving through the system fast enough to the 19th floor of the Sillers Building to ensure that our chiller is keeping the 19 floors of state government operating properly,” he added. “But it’s also, in some instances, perhaps not getting to the fourth or fifth floor of dorm rooms at Jackson State.”

Jackson State’s move-in day was initially delayed a week due to the city’s ongoing low water pressure and boil water notice.

MEMA Executive Director Stephen McCraney said several steps are being taken to help. Beginning Tuesday, the agency will be bringing in potable and non-potable to distribute to residents.

“We have a hurricane stock, a tornado stock... it’s not the biggest in the world, but I’m gonna be able to roll out of there with probably 38,000 bottles of water first thing in the morning,” he said. “And then 18-wheelers are on the way. Logistics officers have already made that order.”

Initially, efforts will be to set up at city fire stations, where water is currently being distributed. However, MEMA will expand those efforts to other areas.

“There’s an EPA decree on the city to distribute water from the fire stations. So, immediately we’re going to backfill them with the water at those locations, knowing that eventually, we want to move it away from there because we don’t want a line of 100 cars around a fire station [where they’re trying] get an apparatus out to go service an emergency call,” he explained. “ We have already ordered water to backfill our other needs out of our logistical warehouse, we’re also asking the governor to do an executive order to mobilize the National Guard for a command and control cell to be able to do what do in a normal hurricane incident.”

“It’s not that we haven’t done it before, so we’re very good at it,” he said. “The guard is one of our taskmasters. They come in with command and control... They come in with vehicles and personnel and they can also augment all of this distribution of water.”

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