Water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, ‘very difficult’ for local businesses

When the water stopped running at her restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, on Monday afternoon, Tanya Burns was preparing for a private event that was scheduled to begin about an hour later. Suddenly her dishwasher wouldn’t work and her toilets wouldn’t flush.

“How do you organize something for people and you can’t flush the toilets?” Burns, the manager of BRAVO! An Italian restaurant and bar, ABC News said. She canceled the event.

“We haven’t opened since,” she said.

The restaurant is one of many businesses in Jackson that suffered as the city reached a nearly full work week with little or no water, according to interviews with local business leaders.

The financial challenges stretch back even further, they said, as the city has been under a boil water advisory for more than a month, putting pressure on companies to disinfect water or find alternatives, while at the same time customers call to shop fear of the services that the business may lack.

In an interview with ABC News Live on Tuesday, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, said the current crisis stems from up to 30 years of deferred maintenance and a lack of capital improvements to the system.

“We’ve had hotter summers, colder winters and more rainfall every year and that’s taking a toll on our infrastructure,” he said.

The crisis in recent days has only added to the difficulties, as businesses either shoulder increased costs for repairs such as portable toilets and on-site water tanks that allow them to stay open, or temporarily close their doors entirely.

Jackson, a city of about 150,000 people, has an economy with a gross domestic product of more than $28 billion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba answers a question from a member of the media during a news conference March 8, 2021 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Jeff Rent, president and CEO of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, which boasts about 1,400 member companies, said about 75 businesses have contacted him this week with concerns about the impact of the water shortage. “It’s very terrible,” he said of the crisis.

The effects of the shortage likely extend to nearly every business in Jackson, he added, because many employees who live in the city can’t shower, companies that need clean water must often buy it, and personal work locations need functioning restrooms for customers and employees.

“If you’re doing business in Jackson, it’s affected you,” he said.

On the other hand, Gotta Go Site Service Rentals, which rents out mobile facilities such as portable toilets and hand-washing stations, has seen a spike in demand, owner Lauren McGraw told ABC News.

“We’ve been inundated,” she said, adding that the company has been contacted by hundreds of new customers since Monday. “We get so many calls we can’t handle them.”

The company, which employs 18 people and currently leases facilities at the state capitol building, purchased several hundred additional toilets from a supplier in Georgia to help meet the surge in demand, McGraw said. All employees are working overtime, as is McGraw, she added.

The company has also raised prices. While prices vary widely, they have risen about 50 percent overall, in part to account for the cost increase as the company endures the extra work, McGraw said.

Despite her company’s sudden growth in business, McGraw laments the devastating cause of it.

“It’s not fun because we want to provide great service,” she said. “It’s tragic to deny people you know need equipment and you can’t get it to them.”

PHOTO: Portable multi-stall toilets are deployed on the Millsaps College campus to serve the remains of 200 students who live in the dormitories, in downtown Jackson, Miss., Sept. 1, 2022.

Portable multi-stall toilets are deployed on the Millsaps College campus to serve the remains of 200 students who live in the dormitories, in downtown Jackson, Miss., Sept. 1, 2022.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Steven O’Neill, the co-owner of two Jackson-area restaurants, The Manship and Aplos, found himself in need of quick solutions when the water stopped running at his locations Monday afternoon with customers in the middle of their meal. Restaurants informed customers of the water shortage, let them finish their meals and closed for the day, he said.

The two restaurants reopened the next morning and have remained open ever since. To do that, the company purchased portable restrooms and hand-washing stations, plastic plates and utensils for customers to use, and water tanks that route clean water to the restaurants, O’Neill said.

But restaurant traffic declined, leaving the business with increased costs and a drop in revenue. Aplos sales are down 30% this week; and in The Manship is down 50%. The company is barely making ends meet, he said.

O’Neill has retained all of his staff, but he may have to make “tough decisions” soon, he said.

“The situation is terrible,” he said.

When asked if he might pull the restaurants out of Jackson entirely, he said, “It’s hard. I haven’t made that decision yet.”

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