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After Crippling Winter Storm, Recovery Neglects Underserved Mississippians

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been nearly three weeks since a harsh winter storm hit the majority-Black city of Jackson, Miss., leaving many residents still without usable water. And now the governor has lifted the mask mandate even as underserved communities continue to be hit hardest by the pandemic. Some residents say this is the latest example of historical neglect. Shalina Chatlani of the Gulf States Newsroom has this story.

SHALINA CHATLANI: South Jackson resident Cicela Page rolled down her windows in the parking lot of New Horizon Church so volunteers could give her water.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Have a good day.

CHATLANI: Page says she hasn't had running water for weeks.

CICELA PAGE: No water - flushing water, drinking water. Can't cook, can't do anything.

CHATLANI: Page is Black and one of thousands of residents who has struggled without water pressure since the storm froze equipment at the city's water plants and wreaked havoc on the hundred-year-old pipes. On Friday, there were still about 30 breaks or leaks in the system, and parts of the city that are over 90% Black are still without water. Other areas are under a boil water notice. Page says Jackson's lower-income and majority-Black residents have been neglected for generations.

PAGE: We had to rock and dodge potholes and everything, and they still hadn't fixed the roads. Go to a white person neighborhood, they're going to go and fix that quick.

CHATLANI: Wealthy white people have been leaving Jackson for nearby communities for decades, tens of thousands since the 1980s. That means the city has a shrinking tax base and doesn't have enough money to fix the roads, buildings and those water pipes. Jordan Rae Hillman with the city's Planning and Development Department says that's happening in many places in the U.S., and the issues aren't easy to solve.

JORDAN RAE HILLMAN: It was created through generational systemic issues, so we're not going to come out of it quickly.

CHATLANI: Since the storm, Hillman says the city has worked hard to fix pipes and get the water plants running again, but they need help from the state. So far, that aid has been slow. It took the Republican governor a week to activate the National Guard despite widespread power and water outages. Historically, many low-income residents feel like they've been ignored.

NADIA BETHLEY: It's a lot better than it used to be, but I do still feel like there are at times two Mississippis.

CHATLANI: Nadia Bethley is a clinical psychologist at a community health center in rural Mound Bayou. She says poor Black and poor white residents in the Delta don't live near the state's drive-through coronavirus vaccination sites, and they're also the hardest hit by the pandemic. So now that the governor has also lifted the mask mandate...

BETHLEY: It feels like a slap in the face. You've got families that are losing multiple family members, you know, back to back to back because there's just no letup, no relief.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're out for today, so...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK, (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We start back up at 9 o'clock in the morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK.

CHATLANI: Back at New Horizon Church in Jackson, residents still drove up even after volunteers ran out of water. State House Representative De'Keither Stamps was there, frustrated. He says those problems will keep happening if all leaders in the state, Black and white, don't start working together to address unacceptable living conditions.

DE'KEITHER STAMPS: These infrastructure issues predate the pandemic. We've got to do better and help people stay alive, whether it be quality health care, quality education and quality government services.

CHATLANI: Stamp says Jackson isn't a lost cause, but it can't fix itself on its own. And it's time for leadership to invest in its city.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Jackson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.