In Jackson, Miss., football goes on despite the water crisis

Stephan Bisaha | September 3, 2022
The Belhaven University football team stands on the sidelines as their game against Millsaps College begins on Thursday.
The Belhaven University football team stands on the sidelines as their game against Millsaps College begins on Thursday. Leslie Gamboni for NPR

Rain, shine, dry faucets or low water pressure, in the South the game must go on.

Some residents in Jackson, Miss., have been without running water for days, while others have been under a boil water notice for more than a month. But unreliable water has been a way of life in Jackson for years and that wasn’t enough to stop football fans from seeing the season open between two division III Jackson schools — Millsaps College, playing as the home team, and Belhaven University as the away team.

Players’ family members drove in from out of state to support their sons. They also brought with them cases of water after hearing about the on-and-off water pressure in the dorms. Flooding of the Pearl River, which cuts through Jackson, led to the city’s main water treatment plant failing and a scramble for clean water as the system lost pressure.

Millsaps College said Friday night that they had good water pressure. But it’s been fluctuating, so the school brought in portable toilets and mobile shower units just in case they need to be rolled out.

Bogan Brewer, a member of the Belhaven University football team, drinks water on the sidelines during Belhaven's game versus Millsaps college.
Bogan Brewer, a member of the Belhaven University football team, drinks water on the sidelines during Belhaven’s game versus Millsaps college. Leslie Gamboni for NPR

Once the game started, it was easy to forget about the water crisis. The away bleachers sat hundreds of fans wearing Belhaven’s green and gold. A blue Powerade sat under one man’s sneaker while the concession stand sold condensation-covered Dasani water bottles for $3. On the field, benches were lined with classic green and yellow Gatorade squeeze bottles.

The rare reminder of the city’s water woes came when the game’s announcer thanked Infinite Insurance for providing 37,000 bottles of water for students and players.

Belhaven freshman Alyssa Pearson came to support her fellow Belhaven athletes after her soccer team beat Sul Ross State University earlier in the day. Water’s been a non-issue during the game, though the other night it was a problem post-game — after wrapping up play she was ready for a quick shower, but found her dorm no longer had any water pressure. She went off-campus to clean up.

Belhaven fans cheer in the stands at the Belhaven University vs. Millsaps College football game in Jackson, Mississippi.
Belhaven fans cheer in the stands at the Belhaven University vs. Millsaps College football game in Jackson, Mississippi. Leslie Gamboni for NPR

In Acworth, Ga., where Pearson’s from, boil water notices aren’t the norm like in Jackson. It’s been a tough education — not enough to make her consider transferring, but she has been learning what it’s like to brush her teeth with bottled water and wonder just what else is coming out of the shower head.

“I have no idea if my toilet is going to flush or not today,” Pearson said.

Dry toilet lines are new for Belhaven senior Izzy Erickson, but boil water notices have been a constant of her four years here. She’s not planning on letting the crisis ruin her senior year, but she’s ready to be done with Jackson.

“I know I won’t be living here after college, so I guess I have that to look forward to,” Erickson said.

Jakuria Ahmed attends the Belhaven University football game with her baby.
Jakuria Ahmed attends the Belhaven University football game with her baby. Leslie Gamboni for NPR

Other seniors give the low water pressure a shoulder shrug — just another chance to embrace the Belhaven edict of overcoming adversity. One baseball player lives off campus and lets friends enjoy his working shower when the dorm’s water flow is more of a drip.

Jackson State University senior Patrick Powe Jr. spends his free time delivering water to residents living in Jackson’s affordable housing communities — many residents either don’t have a car to get to the drive-through water distribution sites or can’t afford to spend the gas waiting potentially hours for the pick-up.

School sporting events continue throughout Jackson despite the water crisis.
School sporting events continue throughout Jackson despite the water crisis. Leslie Gamboni for NPR

Tonight, he’s in the stands supporting his former high school teammate playing for Belhaven, which won the game 49-21. He’s had to deal with water issues all his life but part of what makes this crisis different is how long it’s lasting. Some residents have been under a boil water notice for a month and there’s no timeline for repairs. But Powe said even if the city’s water is still undrinkable for Jackson State’s first home game Sept. 17, he’ll still be there at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium cheering on his team.

“I’m still going to be in the Vet, Jackson State from head to toe, cheering our boys on,” he said.

Copyright 2022 Gulf States Newsroom. To see more, visit Gulf States Newsroom.

: September 5, 2022
A previous version of the web story incorrectly said that Belhaven won the game 49-1. The score was actually 49-21.

Transcript :

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some residents in Jackson, Miss., have been without running water for days, while others have been under a boil water notice for more than a month. The situation is dire, and it’s just not clear when things will get better. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom tells us how people are coping, including at a college football game he attended earlier this week where two local teams clashed.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Rain, shine, dry faucets or low water pressure, in the South, the game must go on.

EMILE FELIX: Even though we’re going through a crisis, you know, people love football.

BISAHA: Emile Felix drove from Louisiana to Millsaps College in Jackson to watch his son play Division III football for the home team.

FELIX: Matter of fact, we brought him three cases of water. You don’t have water there. They’re taking baths with, like, distilled water, water heaters…

BISAHA: In the dorms?

FELIX: Yeah. There’s like, no water pressure.

BISAHA: Millsaps says the water pressure has been fluctuating, so it now has portable toilets and mobile showers at the ready.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Let’s hear it for your Millsaps captains.

BISAHA: Millsaps’ taking on another Jackson institution, Belhaven University. In the away bleachers filled with hundreds of fans, there’s no shortage of hydration. A blue Powerade sits under one man’s sneakers as others drink $3 Dasani bottles from the concession stand. On the field, the benches are lined with those classic green and yellow Gatorade squeeze bottles.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: We’d like to thank Infinite Insurance for providing bottled water. They provided 37,000 bottles of water for the students and teens.

BISAHA: Alyssa Pearson’s here to support her fellow Belhaven athletes after her soccer team won their game 3-1. Water is a nonissue on the pitch, though the other night, it was a problem postgame.

ALYSSA PEARSON: We played an 8:00 game, so it was like, 10:00 p.m. when we were done. So I had to go all the way off campus rather than just opening a door and just showering in my own dorm.

BISAHA: Pearson’s a freshman from Acworth, Ga., where boil water notices are not the norm like here in Jackson.

PEARSON: I’ve heard stories of, like, water problems around here, but I never thought I’d actually have to be in it in real life.

BISAHA: She says it’s strange brushing your teeth with bottled water and thinking about how clean that water is as it comes through the shower head.

PEARSON: And the fact that I have no idea if my toilet is going to flush or not today.

BISAHA: Still, it’s not enough to make her consider transferring. And while dry toilet lines are new for Belhaven seniors like Dawson Albin, he’s used to four years of boil water notices.

DAWSON ALBIN: A lot of guys on campus, like, they’ll come to my house and shower and stuff like that just because they ain’t got no water pressure and stuff. So, you know, it’s kind of tough on them, but at the same time, it is what it is, man. You just got to push through it. Adversity is one of the big things that we talk about here at Belhaven, and we just overcome it every time, man, so…

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE AND CHEERS)

BISAHA: The game ends with a Belhaven victory – 49-21. Jackson State University senior Patrick Powe Jr. came here to support an old high school teammate playing for Belhaven. He grew up here, so he’s got way more than four years of experience with the water.

PATRICK POWE JR: We’ve dealt with this since we were kids, before we were kids.

BISAHA: Part of what makes this crisis so different is how long it’s going – more than a month under a boil water notice for some residents, with no clear timeline for that to change. But Powe says that’s not going to stop him from addressing head to toe in Jackson State football gear.

POWE: As a matter of fact, when we have our first home game and the water’s still not great. I’m still going to be right there in the vet, happy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Lit.

POWE: Lit.

BISAHA: That game’s still a couple of weeks away. Enjoying a football night, though, doesn’t mean ignoring the city’s problems. Powe spends the next morning at some of Jackson’s affordable housing apartments delivering water to those who can’t leave their homes. For NPR News, I’m Stephan Bisaha in Jackson, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.