“Behind the South” – Adria R. Walker Discusses Jackson Water Crisis’ Effect on Mothers and Caregivers

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About Adria R Walker

Adria R. Walker is an award-winning reporter from Mississippi, but she currently divides her time between Mississippi and Western New York. Her reporting has been featured in The Guardian, USA Today, Democrat and Chronicle, Mississippi Today, Belt Magazine, Cosmopolitan and in news outlets across the United States. Adria‚Äôs 2022 coverage of Buffalo, New York in the weeks and months following a mass shooting there was recognized by the New York Publishers Association and by the Society for Feature Journalism. In July, Adria wrote an article for Mississippi Today, “Jackson leaders insist city water is safe to drink. Some mothers struggle to trust them.” The article focuses on the distrust among residents of Jackson, Mississippi, persisting despite efforts by federal and city officials to assure the safety of the city’s water supply. We spoke with Adria to find out more about the depth of distrust among Jackson residents in the safety of their city’s water.

Q&A

What motivated you to investigate and report on the persistent water quality issues in Jackson, Mississippi?

So I’m from Jackson, born and raised. It’s an ongoing issue. I’ve lived in New York for the last couple of years and was always a bit frustrated with how specifically national media covers the water crisis. I also was just curious about how parents and caregivers are responding to the water crisis because, of course, when you have a two-year-old, telling a two-year-old you can’t drink water is not the same as telling a 22-year-old. So, I just felt like there was a gap in the reporting, and I wanted to see what actual caregivers and parents were thinking about the crisis. I talked to my parents about it all the time, and it was just interesting to hear different sources or people to whom I spoke saying similar things to what my parents would say to me growing up.

How deep is the level of distrust among the city’s residents, especially among mothers and caregivers of small children, regarding the safety of their tap water?

I know for a fact that I didn’t speak to a single person who trusted the water even when they were told it was safe to drink. Anecdotally, I’ve reached out to some people and just, in casual conversation, asked about being told on a local, state, and federal level that the water is safe to drink again. I don’t know a single person who’s drinking it. I grew up, I’m in my twenties, being told not to drink the water. So I don’t think that a month’s solution will finally be enough to get people to trust that.

Your article mentions donation-based organizations like the MS Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team. Can you provide more information about their efforts and the support they offered to affected residents?

The organization mobilized pretty much as soon as Governor Reeves announced that Jackson would be without water indefinitely. The group of students is primarily at JSCU. But I believe that other local colleges have just started donating bottles of water or different supplies. I can’t remember if it made it to the article, but they also started donating “showers in a bag” to help people cleanse themselves. I think they might still donate to different people because, like I said, many people still don’t trust the water. I think one thing about Jacksonians and Mississippians in general is that we help each other out when we can. So, they saw that, you know, people would need water to drink, and they wanted to make sure that they could help facilitate that.

How has the ongoing water quality crisis in Jackson affected healthcare professionals, such as neonatologists like Dr. Christina Glick, and their ability to care for vulnerable populations like newborns?

So most of what Jackson healthcare professionals shared with me was just messaging to mothers, expectant mothers and people who actually have newborns. Because of course, if you’re being told you can’t drink the water, some others didn’t know if they could use it for baby formula. Some didn’t know if they should drink it and how it would affect their baby. A lot of their messaging was just. communicating specifically how toxic water or now, supposedly clean water is affecting newborns. Because of course if you’re not talking to your primary care doctor regularly or just can’t talk to your primary care doctor regularly. A lot of the public messaging was not specific to babies. So they just kind of helped translate to parents, like whether or not it was safe for them to drink the water and how to prepare it for their children.

What are the long-term concerns about the viability of the city’s water, especially for young children and expectant mothers, and how have recommendations from the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) been received by residents?

So for the people to whom I’ve spoken, I mean, they still don’t trust the water. Um, I think that it’s gonna be a long term battle to get it to a point where people are feeling comfortable drinking water. Just in my own lifetime, it’s been two decades of whether or not you can drink the water, it’s difficult to trust that it’s finally fixed. I think that even with like just normal things like water main breaks, people are also skeptical of the water. So, I think it’s been decades of unsafe water, it’ll be decades of convincing people that it’s finally safe again. I don’t imagine that it’s going to happen overnight.

Could you discuss the financial and logistical challenges faced by families in Jackson, particularly those on limited budgets, in ensuring access to safe drinking water for their children, and any innovative solutions you’ve come across, such as the reverse osmosis device mentioned in your article?

People have installed machines like the reverse osmosis machine. I know of people who purchase water filter gallons things like water coolers; you’ll find it like an office building, except they have it in their home. If you go to Whole Foods or similar stores, they have those big water dispensers. So people will fill up gallons of those and just take them home. People have been in a crisis for so long that they have just figured out how to adapt to it. Most people have figured out how to adapt to the water crisis. Just in casual conversation, you’ll find different ways that people are handling it. I know during the reporting, I was told about a woman who collected rainwater and then distilled it herself. But I will also add that, during my reporting, I did have some health professionals caution against a few of these methods. If you’re not cleaning your water filters frequently, you could just be doubling the problem. So sure, you have the filter, but if it’s dirty, you’re not really helping. So, people must add another layer of diligence, like the reverse osmosis filter that needs to be cleaned regularly. Rainwater isn’t always safe to drink, and if people aren’t distilling it correctly, that’s also an issue. But, I think it’s just a multilayered situation.