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Unsafe water challenges Jackson, Miss., restaurant owners, who must look elsewhere

eZra Brown wants Soulé Coffee and Bubble Tea to serve as a place for locals to cultivate ideas and dreams for a brighter Jackson, Miss., or to simply experience new perspectives in a growing city.
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eZra Brown wants Soulé Coffee and Bubble Tea to serve as a place for locals to cultivate ideas and dreams for a brighter Jackson, Miss., or to simply experience new perspectives in a growing city.

JACKSON, Miss. — eZra Brown, owner of Soulé Coffee and Bubble Tea, starts his day differently than most other restaurant operators in the nation — traveling to neighboring cities for water and ice to serve his customers.

When Brown opened his cafe less than a month ago in Jackson, Miss., the city was entering the third week of a boil-water notice because of low pressure at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant. Then flooding at the Pearl River in early August caused the plant's pumps to fail.

Officials don't know when the health alert will end.

"If you have a boil alert, we have to get our ice from another city," Brown said. "We're rolling through 100 plus pounds of ice every single day. One-hundred-plus pounds, not including water. If you want a lemonade, if you want a green tea, that's all bottled water that we have to have.

More than 40 Jackson restaurant owners wrote a letter to Mississippi's governor and Jackson's mayor in early August, telling them that the repeated boil water orders and outages were costing them hundreds of dollars a day.

On Monday, the city's water pressure dropped so low that many people didn't have access to water at all. That prompted the city, state and federal governments to declare a state of emergency.

Pat Fontaine, executive director for the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, said many of the 500 area restaurants are experiencing issues with the water.

"There is some fear of the water supply being fit for consumption, so they chose to go to outlying cities that do not have the boil water notice," Fontaine said.

Some owners have reported rising costs of supplies, such as canned drinks and disposable packaging, reaching thousands of dollars above normal operating costs each week. Those come on top of diminishing sales as customers aren't eating in the city as much as before.

Few have closed their doors for now, but Fontaine hopes that the state's emergency management teams as well as federal aid can solve the problem that's been threatening to occur for years: Jackson has been struggling with a crumbling city water system.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba estimated it will cost billions of dollars to fix.

During a news conference Wednesday, Lumumba said it's not clear when people in Jackson will be able to use their water without boiling it.

"That all will be dependent upon a few things," Lumumba said. "First and foremost, restoring the pressure, the circumstance that initially led to the boil-water notice, long before we dealt with the flood waters and the challenge there was because of turbidity."

Lumumba said they fixed that problem of turbidity, or how cloudy or clear water is, but then had to do hundreds of tests on the water to make sure it was safe to drink.

"Then we had the rain, then we had the flood," he said. "Now we have low water pressure as a result of the flood. "

The city installed a temporary pump at its main water-treatment facility, Lumumba said, and once water pressure returns to normal, they'll be able to start testing the water quality again.

Brown says Black art, Asian minimalism and the African diaspora influenced the design of Soulé Coffee and Bubble Tea, citing years spent in coffee bars while on tour.
/ Maya Miller
/
Maya Miller
Brown says Black art, Asian minimalism and the African diaspora influenced the design of Soulé Coffee and Bubble Tea, citing years spent in coffee bars while on tour.

As of Thursday, half of the water tanks had begun filling up, and some homes and businesses closer to the plant were seeing water pressure return. Those further away remained affected.

For Brown, solutions can't come soon enough. He opened Soulé Coffee as a hub for local creatives to collaborate and dream, but he's grinding. He's the sole employee, and he said the hiring process has been slower than he expected.

Right now, he works more than 12 hours a day to make sure his first months are successful. He wants city and state government officials to cooperate so Black-owned businesses like his can thrive.

"Now I need y'all to do your job," Brown said. "Get me clean water."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maya Miller