Resilience Natural Disasters

How flooding can lead to water crises like the one in Mississippi

Residents in Jackson, Mississippi are without reliable access to safe drinking water after the failure of a water treatment facility.
The Associated Press/Rogelio V. Solis

Story at a glance

  • Superstorm Sandy was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the United States.

  • New research shows that children of pregnant mothers exposed to the storm were at a greater risk of developing anxiety and other mood disorders.

  • As natural disasters grow more frequent thanks in part to climate change, researchers caution the toll on children’s mental health may worsen.

Mississippi’s capital city is in the midst of a water crisis as recent torrential rain coupled with existing infrastructure problems has cut off access to clean drinking water for most of the city’s residents. 

The main water treatment facility for the city of Jackson, the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, failed in recent days, leaving residents with little to no reliably clean drinking or running water due to possible contamination and lack of pressure for days. City officials on Thursday said areas in Jackson now have some pressure. 

The crisis kicked off late last week after days of heavy rain caused the Pearl River to flood and disrupt treatment processes at the plant. State leaders have urged residents to avoid drinking tap water, and are distributing bottled drinking water and non-potable water to replace running water. 

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Problems with the city’s water system, however, have been ongoing for years. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a Safe Drinking Water Act Emergency Administrative Order for the facility in 2020 after identifying compliance and maintenance deficiencies. Last year, some residents were left without water for several weeks due to a system-wide failure caused by freezing temperatures. Since July, city residents have been under a boil water advisory due to elevated chances water may contain “disease-causing organisms.”

President Biden on Tuesday declared an emergency in the state to free up federal resources to respond to the disaster. Officials are currently scrambling to restore access to safe drinking water, and Jackson Mayor Chowke Antar Lumumba said he’s optimistic drinking water will return this week. 

How does flooding disrupt water systems?

Floods are the most common type of natural disaster in the U.S. and pose a significant threat to water systems by damaging crucial infrastructure and contaminating supply. 

If excess stormwater manages to penetrate contained areas of a treatment facility, which is more likely to be the case in aging, deteriorating treatment plants, it can cause a range of issues, such as pumping failures, erosion and leakage into pipes. 

“It’s a major problem when floodwaters actually get into the protected area of one of these plants,” Aaron Packman, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, told Changing America. 

“You can think about the need to pump water. If none of your pumps work, how do you pump out all that flood water that has gotten into your building, your basement, your utility rooms?”

In Jackson, pump failures left the water system without enough water or water pressure to move through city pipes. An emergency rental pump was installed at Jackson’s O.B. Curtis water-treatment plant Wednesday, restoring some pressure to some areas. 

As floodwaters wash over areas of land that are typically dry, they collect pollutants such as soil, pesticides, oil, heavy metals, raw sewage and others. Contaminants then travel in high volume in floodwaters that can inundate drinking water wells or city water systems for days or weeks. Additionally, excess water makes it much more difficult for water treatment facilities to effectively treat water. 

If water sources or parts of water distribution systems flood, hazardous contaminants that can cause serious illness may find their way into residents’ taps. Direct contact with flood water can cause gastrointestinal infections due to the prevalence of bacteria, viruses and parasites. 

“The threat or damage to the treatment facility, the pumping failures and the contamination that goes with flooding are all a big part of the problem,” Packman said. 

“Most waterborne disease outbreaks occur during extremes of water, mainly floods, but also droughts.”

Packman says he expects to see more water emergencies in U.S. cities in the future, as extreme weather events occur more frequently and put more pressure on aging water systems that need to be repaired and modernized.