How the Jackson Water Crisis Is Hurting Its Restaurants | Civil Eats

How the Jackson Water Crisis Is Hurting Its Restaurants

Mississippi’s capital city has endured numerous water shutdowns in recent years—due in part, locals say, to deferred maintenance, mismanagement, and systemic racism. With dedicated federal support now in place, the city’s restaurant owners see hope for recovery.

Restaurant workers in Jackson, Mississippi, use bottled water to prep before customers arrive as the city remained without reliable water infrastructure in September 2022. (Photo © Rory Doyle)

Restaurant workers in Jackson, Mississippi, use bottled water to prep before customers arrive as the city remained without reliable water infrastructure in September 2022.

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When historic flooding caused the pumps to fail at a water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi, last August, leaving the city without running water for about a week, restaurateur Jeff Good had to close all three of his establishments.

Even when water finally did return to the tap, it was unsafe to drink. In order to operate under the nine-week boil-water notice, Good had to buy bottled water for baking, washing vegetables, and filling customers’ glasses. He also had to turn off his ice machines and soda fountain and serve commercial ice and canned sodas.

“It’s $2,000 per restaurant per week in extra expenses,” said the owner of BRAVO! Italian restaurant, the Broad Street bakery and café, and Sal & Mookie’s pizza and ice cream joint. “So that’s $18,000 over nine weeks for three restaurants. And we never get that money back.”

“If we can fix this water system and start a different narrative, investment can come back and the city can rebirth, and we can be a great story.”

Other restaurateurs also reported damage. At Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues in the Farish Street Historic District, John Tierre bought the same extra supplies—and paid his staff to come in one to two hours early each day to unpack and distribute them and boil dishwater, Tierre said.

At Lou’s Full-Serv, owner Louis LaRose said, “We went from having a good summer and a little bit of cash flow to basically zero cash flow. We were so slow that it literally almost bankrupted us.”

The August water crisis resolved, at least for the short term, after Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency and brought in the Mississippi National Guard to distribute safe water and oversee emergency repairs, and after President Joe Biden declared Jackson a disaster area and sent in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with resources and assistance.

While the city’s water shutdown made national news, it wasn’t the first time water issues have plagued the Mississippi capital. Decades of deferred maintenance to the crumbling water system—some parts of which are more than 100 years old—coupled with recent extreme weather events like freezes and flooding have brought the system to its breaking point.

Some see mismanagement and poor planning at the local level at the root of the water crisis. Others see racism as the cause; as a progressive city that is 84 percent Black in a conservative, white-led state, the city for years has not often received the state support it has requested to address its challenges.

But now, for the first time, the federal government has stepped in in a major way. In November 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice appointed a third-party manager—water systems expert Ted Henifin—to fix the drinking water and the associated billing system, allocating $600 million for that job exclusively.

With the repair process underway, many hope this can be a turning point—for the city’s residents and also for the restaurants and other businesses that keep the city’s economy afloat and its identity intact.

Good says repairing the infrastructure is a crucial first step. “If we can fix this water system and start a different narrative, investment can come back and the city can rebirth, and we can be a great story,” he said.

Ramon Davis stocks bagged ice at Babalu in Jackson during the September 2022 water crisis. (Photo © Rory Doyle)

Ramon Davis stocks bagged ice at Babalu in Jackson during the September 2022 water crisis. (Photo © Rory Doyle)

A Long-Failing Water System

Jackson has faced population decline and severe economic challenges over the last few decades. The city shrunk from around 203,000 residents in 1980 to around 150,000 residents in 2021 as many white people fled the city limits, taking their wealth—and tax dollars—with them.

While the suburbs surrounding Jackson—nonexistent in the ’80s—are growing and thriving, the city’s 26 percent poverty rate is more than twice the national rate of 11.6 percent.

“Our city has been tanking year after year,” said Good, who in addition to owning three restaurants is past president of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. “Every system we have—social, educational, economic, public safety, public works—is strained and failing. And that’s led to the outflow of care and economics. We have hit rock bottom.”

Without a solid revenue stream over the last few decades—and with problems including residents altering their meters to avoid paying for water and the 2012 installation of a faulty water meter and billing system by the German technology company Siemens—city leaders have not had the money necessary to maintain the water system. And with severe worker shortages and high turnover, the water department does not have enough operators on staff to conduct preventative maintenance.

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Amidst this dysfunction and neglect, Jackson residents and businesses became accustomed to regular service shut offs, line breaks, boil-water notices, low pressure, and exposure to lead and harmful bacteria like E. coli. In March 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an emergency administrative order for the Jackson water system—one of many official warnings about the city’s water—saying it put consumers’ health at risk.

Then in February 2021, when the winter freeze took out the Texas power grid, old pipes in Jackson froze and burst, leaving the city without clean water for more than a month.

“A two- to three-day boil notice poses challenges for restaurants,” said LaRose of Lou’s Full-Serv. “You multiply that by 50 days, and you can’t wash lettuce, you can’t wash fruits and vegetables, you’ve got to boil water and cool it or buy distilled water. Your costs go through the roof.”

“My mom and my aunt say, ‘You’ve got this big fancy restaurant in Jackson, but y’all don’t have running water.’ It’s kind of embarrassing that in 2023 a city doesn’t have running water.”

Tensions between the city and state leaders have been running high, including a particularly hostile relationship between Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Jackson’s progressive mayor, and Reeves, Mississippi’s conservative governor. Reeves has described the water situation as “a crisis of incompetence,” implicating Lumumba, and Lumumba has characterized the state’s dealings with Jackson as “racist” and “paternalistic.” When Jackson asked for $47 million from the state to fix the pipes after the big freeze to try to get ahead of the problem, for instance, it received $3 million, 6 percent of the requested amount.

Though the city’s water system has stabilized since the August crisis, there have been a number of boil-water notices issued, and people generally don’t trust Jackson water, which makes them wary of eating out, restaurant owners say.

“My mom and my aunt say, ‘You’ve got this big fancy restaurant in Jackson, but y’all don’t have running water,’” Tierre said. “It’s kind of embarrassing that in 2023 a city doesn’t have running water.”

Good sees water as vital to restaurants’ success—and restaurants as vital to the city’s success. “I hire 210 people—they’re all Jacksonians,” he said. In his 30 years in business, he estimates he has hired between 10,000 and 20,000 people. “I am a major job provider here, and a major quality-of-life provider, and an economic engine,” he said.

After the August outage, Good organized a coalition of 46 Jackson restaurateurs, including Tierre and LaRose, asking city, county, and state representatives to cooperate to solve the problems. Without a solid fix, he said, “we’re going to become a burned-out donut—we will be the hole and around us will be great wealth and prosperity.”

Brent's Drugs manager Sarah Donald pours bottled water into a coffee pot during the September 2022 water crisis. (Photo © Rory Doyle)

Brent’s Drugs manager Sarah Donald pours bottled water into a coffee pot during the September 2022 water crisis. (Photo © Rory Doyle)

Neglect, Bad Planning, Racism—or All Three?

Some Jacksonians blame local lawmakers. “There has been mismanagement through local government and leaders for so long,” said LaRose. “I don’t care if they’re blue or red, it has been mismanaged. People choose not to work with one another, and nothing gets done.”

Tierre of Johnny T’s sees the issue as primarily about money. “You can shake it how you want to, but the bottom line is, it’s economics, it’s funding,” he said.

Others, however, see racism at the root. In September 2022, the NAACP filed a complaint with the EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, citing a history of discrimination through the repeated rejection of requests for federal funds to address the problem.

“The water crisis in Jackson is just the latest example of a negligent—if not racist—pattern of underfunding basic water services for Black communities,” added Abre’ Conner, NAACP’s Director of Environmental and Climate Justice. “Our country has a longstanding history of mistreating and neglecting Black communities, putting the lives of men, women, and children at risk.”

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Cindy Ayers Elliott, owner of the 68-acre Foot Print Farms, which sits within the Jackson city limits, sees the disinvestment as an intentional move on the part of conservative state leaders to disempower the Black city and take control, as has happened in other parts of the U.S.

“The policies that they are pushing and the legislation that they have been passing, without a doubt, brings you back into the ’40s or ’50s,” she said. “They keep this state depressed, deprived of resources that [should be] available to the people . . . It’s just a different way they’re lynching now. And it’s with the dollar, and with something as basic as water.”’

Indeed, in recent years, the state has repeatedly attempted to gain control of the city’s spending, services, and infrastructure. State leaders have tried to take over the Jackson airport and expand the jurisdiction of the Capitol police. Then, in January, Republican state legislators introduced a bill that would place Jackson’s water systems under state control, giving the state access to the $600 million designated by the federal government for the repairs.

Notices posted on the social media pages of Broad Street Baking Company & Cafe and Lou's Full-Serve during the 2022 water crisis.

Notices posted on the social media pages of Broad Street Baking Company & Cafe and Lou’s Full-Serve during the 2022 water crisis.

‘I Believe in the City; I Fight for the Underdog’

Since he started, Henifin, the third-party manager, has set to work on 13 main priorities. To rebuild trust, he has created a water bill debt-relief program for residents who were unfairly overcharged.

Additionally, Henifin’s team is identifying leaks in the system and creating plans to replace small-diameter water lines with larger ones. They have also lined up systems for corrosion control and identifying lead.

The restaurateurs Civil Eats spoke to expressed confidence in Henifin’s leadership, and a sense of relief that the water system is in the hands of a competent federal appointee with the money to complete the work. And many are committed to sticking with the city through what they expect to be a long process.

“I understand it won’t get fixed overnight. It’ll probably take 10 to 15 years,” said Tierre. “But I think the people of Jackson are strong. So, we’ll get through it, and we’ll continue to thrive.”

Good is aware he could move across the Pearl River into Rankin County and earn more in sales—without the water issues. “But I believe in the city, and I fight for the underdog. I have a deep-seated belief that business has a responsibility to the community,” he said. “And I tend to believe that we’re going to rebirth, and this is going to be the phoenix from the ashes.”

“I have high hopes,” said LaRose. “If nothing else, I’ve got hope.”

Christina Cooke is Civil Eats' associate editor. Based in North Carolina, she has also covered people, place, science, business, and culture for venues including The New Yorker, The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian, Oxford American, and High Country News. In the past, she has worked as a staff writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee and a weekly paper in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of the documentary writing program at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies and the creative nonfiction writing MFA program at Portland State University, she teaches interviewing and nonfiction writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Find out more at www.christinacooke.com. Read more >

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