By The Rev. Jesse Jackson
In sweltering heat, 150,000 residents of Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s capital and its largest city, had no running water, after suffering under a “boil only” order for weeks. The last catastrophe came after extreme rainfall in Jackson swelled the Pearl River and swamped the city’s outmoded water treatment plant.
Even though Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and the city government announced Monday that water pressure had been restored in Jackson, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Why wasn’t the system rebuilt years ago? In deep red Mississippi, every statewide elected official is a conservative Republican, and while Jackson is the state capital, it is also a poor, majority-Black city that Republican office holders find easy to short-change.
Republican state lawmakers blocked the city’s efforts to raise money for its infrastructure with a sales tax hike, while passing tax cuts – skewed to the wealthy –at the state level. A Republican controlled state legislative committee blocked a 2021 bill that would have allowed issuance of a bond to help pay for infrastructure improvements. The Republican governor, Tate Reeves, instead called for the city to do a better job collecting water bill payments.
In the emergency, Mississippi will get immediate help from the federal government. And the state will get significant funding from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden that allocates about $429 million to fund water system improvements in the entire state of Mississippi.
Yet every Republican member of the Mississippi delegation to Congress, except one, voted against that infrastructure bill. And of course, Republicans have for years scorned even the existence of global warming, while opposing any efforts to strengthen our roads, bridges and water systems to prepare for it.
Mississippi is not alone. The American Society of Civil Engineers give America’s storm water protections the grade of D on their infrastructure report card. Think about that.
In Arkansas, floods in 2021 wiped out bridges and roads, took out power lines, and buried homes and cities in mud and debris. Again, the federal government stepped in to help fund needed repairs. Arkansas now is slated to receive $96 million for 19 flood control projects across the state from the infrastructure bill. Again, every single Republican in the state’s congressional delegation voted against the money for flood control.
In Kentucky, fierce floods – caused again by unprecedented rains that result from catastrophic climate change – took the lives of 37 people (and counting) and devastated entire communities. Much of southeast Kentucky remains under “boil water” orders because of overwhelmed water systems.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) admits that the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill is a “godsend” for his state. For that, he was bashed by Donald Trump who criticized him and other Republicans who voted for the bill as voting “for Democrat longevity.” For Trump and the vast majority of Republicans in the House and Senate, partisanship trumps even utterly necessary investment in the basics of any advanced country – clean water, strong bridges and roads, storm protections, broadband and more. And partisanship enlisted every Republican senator to filibuster against Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which was focused on investments to address climate change as well as measures to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.
The reality is that we’ve been shortchanging investment in our basic infrastructure for years. And now aging, decrepit and outmoded systems face the new challenge posed by extreme weather resulting from climate change. Continued inaction and neglect will cost much more – in lives lost, property destroyed, hopes lost.
The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, like that in Flint, Michigan, reflects the vicious neglect that predominantly Black and poor communities suffer at the hands of callous politicians and their race bait politics. The suffering of largely white poor and working people in Kentucky and in Arkansas reflects the folly of anti-government and partisan sentiment so extreme that it impedes even the most basic investments in our country.
Now, of course, the politicians in Mississippi and Arkansas and Kentucky who railed against the infrastructure bill will scurry to be at the front of the line to take credit for the ribbon-cutting events when repairs and renovations are begun.
But, as Nina Simone once sang, “everybody knows about Mississippi, [expletive deleted]. This country needs a major drive to modernize its infrastructure to secure it against the intensifying storms, floods, droughts, and winds that are already hitting us. To do that, we need leaders who will lead, or get out of the way.
The Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr., founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, is one of America’s foremost civil rights, religious and political figures.