JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - City and county leaders in the Capital City are embarking on several paths to possible federal assistance to address longstanding water system failures only made worse by last month’s winter storms.
3 On Your Side identified three ways Jackson can secure federal dollars: appropriations from Congress, an approved disaster declaration and hazard mitigation grants; two of those options are already being pursued.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba reached out Wednesday to Gov. Tate Reeves for state and federal assistance in a two-page letter that also went out to state leaders and Mississippi’s Congressional delegation.
The letter, which asks for approximately $47 million to cover repairs for the water system, requests the money immediately.
Federal dollars rarely get disbursed immediately, though, especially in cases involving natural disasters.
Hinds County Emergency Operations Center Director Joey Perkins knows that firsthand.
“A lot of people think that the money flow just cuts on immediately. And it doesn’t,” Perkins said. “We still have not seen one penny of assistance that we’ve put in for from flooding or COVID-19 on the federal side. On FEMA’s side. We’re still negotiating a lot of that and going through the process.”
Perkins is referring to last year’s record Pearl River flooding that caused major damage to Jackson’s sewer system.
Many on social media have accused Reeves of dragging his feet during the process, but county and state emergency officials maintain the governor cannot request federal assistance without a request for disaster assistance.
Reeves posted on social media that he has requested federal financial assistance for 32 counties that have submitted damage requests and met the financial threshold to qualify.
The governor tweeted a flowchart showing where Mississippi was in the process for public federal assistance, indicating the state has requested FEMA to conduct joint damage assessments in those 32 counties.
Hinds County is not on that list yet, Perkins said, because they’re still in response mode and dealing with residents who still don’t have water in Jackson.
Once that ends and the water system is fully restored, damage assessments for the system can begin.
Those assessments will then have to be approved by FEMA, a lengthy process that involves reviewing maintenance logs and extensive documentation about the water system, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director of external affairs Malary White said.
“When FEMA comes in and validates those damages, there are many different factors that they look into, but one of them is deferred maintenance. And this is where it could get tricky,” White said. “FEMA looks at these pipes. Were these roads functioning in great condition before a disaster even happened? Did the disaster itself damage this? Or were these infrastructures damaged beforehand? Were they in working condition? These are all things that FEMA decides. FEMA approves and denies assistance.”
Should FEMA rule the city is ineligible for federal funding, there is an appeal process, but that tacks on additional time to an already protracted process.
At the same time, the clock is ticking for Hinds County to submit its damage assessments, a deadline public works crews will have to be able to meet if they want to try and recoup what last month’s winter storms did to the city’s water treatment plants and water mains.
“The state has to put in a public request declaration by March 21,” White said, but added that deadline has a bit of wiggle room. “Say Hinds County didn’t meet that. We can go back in, if we get the declaration and request for additional counties to be added. We did this during the Easter storms. Hinds County, though, is also going to have to go through the validation process and things like that, just like anyone else would.”
3 On Your Side reached out to Lumumba’s office to discuss these strategies, but communications director Michelle Atoa said the mayor would not be able to accommodate an interview.
Atoa offered to get details to WLBT on some of the avenues they’re exploring, but did not make those available as of Thursday night.
Reeves’ office released a statement in response to questions from 3 On Your Side but did not directly address those questions.
For example, we asked the governor if Jackson’s water crisis could warrant a separate declaration and whether the state had done that in the past.
Reeves’ press secretary, Bailey Martin, instead told WLBT that the Governor’s Offie is working “closely with local leaders to get their damage reports and submit them through the proper channels.
“So far, the response phase has been preeminent in Hinds County. We can be reimbursed for all expenses related to the winter storm,” Martin said in the statement. “This has been treated with the greatest possible urgency, because it does not matter to a family who needs water what the cause is. They just need help. We are providing every possible resource, and will continue to do so.”
Neither Reeves nor any other state or federal official who received Lumumba’s letter requesting aid has publicly responded to it.