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Jackson State University president talks about the city's water supply crisis

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is pledging aid to Jackson, Miss., as the city begins yet another day without drinking water. Floodwaters knocked a critical water treatment plant offline Monday night, and it's unclear when service will be restored. At distribution sites around the city, frustrated people waited in long lines yesterday for cases of bottled water. Jackson resident Larisha Gill says people are struggling.

LARISHA GILL: Getting water just to brush your teeth and to wash dishes and to do those things, and being scared that we might have to use water to flush the toilet is very unnerving.

MARTIN: As we're going to hear, Jackson's water dilemma is not a new one. The system has failed off and on for decades. Thomas Hudson is the president of Jackson State University and a lifelong resident of Jackson. He talked with our co-host Leila Fadel about some of the challenges.

THOMAS HUDSON: We are holding up well. Certainly, we've been in this situation before. It's getting progressively worse.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah.

HUDSON: We're starting to have these incidents really every month, every other month now, where it used to be based on some type of major event, like an ice storm or a flood or something like that. But now we're just starting to have these water pressure issues, boil-water notices, and it's becoming a constant thing.

FADEL: So what does the community need for this not to be a constant thing?

HUDSON: Well, there has to be a long-term fix to what's been a long-term problem. It affects the entire community. It affects Jackson State University, the institution that I lead. It affects the surrounding community. It affects local businesses. It affects downtown Jackson, our commerce. It affects the local school district.

FADEL: How did it get this bad?

HUDSON: It's just been long-term neglect as it relates to the water system. And it's - you know, Jackson is not alone...

FADEL: Right.

HUDSON: ...In terms of some of the infrastructural issues that have plagued this country. And what we're really seeing now is just kind of the manifestation of that long-term neglect, really a lack of a full, concise, clear plan of action that will address - and the funding needed to execute on the plan.

FADEL: Right now, people don't have water to drink unless they go purchase it or find it somehow - given it.

HUDSON: Yes. You know, thankfully, there's been a lot of assistance in terms of water giveaways.

FADEL: Yeah.

HUDSON: Here at Jackson State's campus, we have just learned to have a constant supply - a ready supply of drinking water on hand. So we have been able to provide that to our on-campus residents. Communitywide, people have really rallied around to provide drinking water and also that water for daily use.

FADEL: Right.

HUDSON: You know, certainly drinking water is important. But just that daily use of sanitary reasons - brushing your teeth, all of those things.

FADEL: What's the impact been on the university?

HUDSON: We do have a plan in place that helps get us through it. The first thing is going to virtual instruction and remote work, which relieves some of the pressure on our water system. Then we make sure we provide those basic needs. You know, what do we need to continue our dining service? What do we need to provide drinking water? And then the sanitation facilities - you know, portable showers, portable restrooms, but also introducing water into our system and into our buildings so our air conditioners - you know, we're in the middle of the late summer in Mississippi, so the air conditioners have to continue to work.

FADEL: Are you concerned about the ability to keep attracting students to a place like Jackson State University if basic infrastructure like water breaks down in the city of Jackson?

HUDSON: That is a long-term concern...

FADEL: Yeah.

HUDSON: ...Just because you're already hearing from parents. You're already hearing from other students as it relates to, well, is this going to be my four-year experience here at Jackson State University? Here, we're looking to take steps to provide university water supply - so really a standalone water system that's central to the university and that allows us to help mitigate some of the citywide issues that we see over and over again. But again, it's just a matter of assuring your students that this won't be a full part of your learning experience. We will get through these times.

FADEL: So besides money, what does a long-term plan look like to you that will actually solve this so that you don't have to use these backup plans and take matters into your own hands in situations like this?

HUDSON: The long-term plan has to be inclusive of money. It has to be inclusive of all hands on deck - your federal, local and state officials coming together, which we're starting to see happen. You know, you're starting to see everyone sort of pull together and determine, what is it we need to do to fix this problem once and for all? We know it's not going to be a quick fix. We know it's not going to be an inexpensive fix. And we're really excited to see everyone pulling together in order to make that happen.

FADEL: Thomas Hudson, president of Jackson State University, thank you so much.

HUDSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.