Portable showers, prepackaged food: How Jackson colleges are responding to the water crisis
Many college students are using portable showers and toilets as Jackson’s water emergency causes little to no water pressure on campuses throughout the city, forcing schools to move classes online and go without air conditioning.
Administrations at three colleges and universities based in Jackson – Belhaven University, Millsaps College, and Jackson State University – are not sure how long these contingency measures, like limiting dining hall hours and distributing bottled water, will last.
“The situation is fluid, no pun intended,” Michael Bolden, the director of campus operations at Jackson State University, said at a town hall on Tuesday. “Things are moving up and down depending on how the system is responding to what’s happening at the primary locations.”
Tougaloo College is not affected by the city’s water emergency, a spokesperson confirmed to Mississippi Today, because it has its own well system.
At Belhaven University, located a few blocks from the J.H. Fewell Water Plant, classes did not meet Tuesday. The administration has been closely monitoring the situation in meetings all day and hopes to have a better idea of how to proceed by the end of the week, David Sprayberry, Belhaven’s director of public relations, told Mississippi Today.
Currently, some buildings lack water or have low pressure on upper floors. The university has limited food service to residential students and is distributing bottled water for drinking and nonpotable water to flush the toilets.
“Because of the uncertainty, we are taking the following actions for TOMORROW ONLY,” Belhaven University President Roger Parrott wrote in a letter to campus.
Parrott wrote that he hopes to have more information for students by Tuesday night but that because Belhaven University is located “downhill,” he expects the campus to be among the first areas of the city to have water pressure restored.
“Thankfully, our campus location is ‘downhill,’ and we keep water running longer than other parts of town,” Parrott wrote. “We will likely be one of the first portions of town to have water pressure restored when the plant is fixed.”
Colleges and universities are effectively small municipalities, providing thousands of students in Jackson with round-the-clock housing, food, security, health care and utilities. The disruption in water service doesn’t just affect students’ learning, but all aspects of living on campus, from showering in the dormitories to buying hot meals on campus.
“We are nearing the 24-hour mark of this happening,” Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, JSU’s vice president for student affairs, said at the town hall. “I know it definitely feels like it’s been happening forever, but we are still in the early stages.”
UMMC placed its campus on fire watch, but it’s unclear if the other Jackson colleges are doing the same as of Tuesday afternoon.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Annie Mitchell, the vice president for marketing and communications at Millsaps College. “We rely on the city for that.”
At Millsaps, a small liberal arts college on a hill in central Jackson, the emergency management team is meeting twice a day as the second week of classes begin, Mitchell said.
On Tuesday morning, the water pressure returned to above 30 PSI, enabling students to flush toilets.
“Millsaps is one of the highest points in the city, and our residence halls on the second and third floors, just with gravity, it’s harder for those students to flush the toilets,” Mitchell said.
Portable showers and toilets had been brought in on Monday night, but Mitchell said she didn’t know yet how much that cost the college. The university’s air conditioning has not been affected, and Mitchell said that while there was a wifi outage on campus, it was not due to the city’s water emergency.
“Our provider, they had a global outage, it was just really unfortunate timing,” she said.
Millsaps also requested portable hygiene stations from Aramark, its food provider, so dining services could continue, albeit with prepackaged food and on limited hours.
As for classes, Millsaps went virtual on Monday around 11:30 a.m. after the decline in water pressure was noticed, Mitchell said. Students and faculty have the day off today in case they need to travel home, and classes (with the exception of labs) are going to be virtual for the rest of the week.
“We just wanted to make sure that we were giving our students as much choice as possible in terms of where they were going to be, because we weren’t quite sure how the water was going to, at that time, impact services on campus such as laundry, flushing toilets, taking showers that kind of thing,” she said.
Jackson State University held an hour-long town hall on Zoom on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the impact of the water emergency on the campus. Four top administrators at the university just west of downtown answered questions for students, including Brown-McClure, Bolden, President Thomas Hudson, and Alisa Mosley, the provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Almost three weeks ago, low water pressure had caused the university to delay move-in for the dormitories; JSU is now moving classes online for the rest of the week with plans to resume in-person by Tuesday next week.
IHL’s risk management office has reached out to JSU and “stands ready to assist with any needs identified by the university,” Blanton wrote in an email.
Many dorms don’t have water on the upper floors; the JSU delivered water bottles to students last night and this morning. There is no laundry service in order to ensure water is going to students’ basic needs, and the library is closed. The university is working to bring in water for food prep in the dining hall, and to set up portable showers for students by tomorrow.
Some parts of campus had issues with air conditioning, but Bolden said that students should start noticing cooler temperatures inside this afternoon.
Students had multiple questions about whether it is safe to live in the dorms. A parent asked if they should prepare to bring their children home.
“You can come but as we’ve mentioned, you do have to be aware of the ever changing situation that’s happening and the impact to jackson state – we are not gonna turn away a student who arrives but it really is up to you at this point and your comfort level of whether you arrive on saturday,” Brown-McClure said.
During the town hall, Brown-McClure repeatedly told students that the campus is not in an “evacuation situation.”
“Again, the campus is open; we are not closed,” Brown-McClure said. “You can still hang out, you can still walk the plaza. I just looked outside. It’s a very beautiful day. Please engage with your peers … we just have to be mindful.”
“Campus safety is still here, the dining hall is still here, we are open,” she added.
The university can’t make any adjustments to tuition or housing because those rates are set by the state, Brown-McClure told students.
The administrators also fielded multiple questions from students about efforts to get JSU its own water system, a goal that became particularly urgent after last year’s ice storm froze flowing water to the university. Jackson’s water issues have caused periods of low and no water pressure on JSU’s campus as far back as 2010.
Hudson told students that JSU is actively working to study the feasibility of building its own water system on campus. He said there is state and federal funding available to help the university construct its own water system, but he did not go into specifics.
Four Mississippi universities have their own water systems, according to the Institutions of Higher Learning, including Alcorn State University, Mississippi Valley State University, Mississippi State University, and the University of Mississippi.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center uses its own water source for about 90% of campus with the remaining coming from the city.
In an email to the faculty senate last week, Bolden wrote that the university has “initiated requests for funding to determine the best option to meet” its needs, including preparing a plan for an alternate water supply to serve JSU. It is “a primary and recurring conversation with the Department of Finance and Administration, members of the MS State Legislature, and officials in the City of Jackson.”
Millsaps is also looking to construct its own well system due to the impacts of the 2021 ice storm on students and the campus. The university is currently in the fundraising phase of the project.
Mitchell said that while Millsaps did not find a “direct correlation” between the ice storm and a decline in enrollment, Jackson’s water woes are difficult on students, faculty and staff.
“Part of the beauty of going to Millsaps is we have a great residential experience,” she said, “and certainly water is a key piece of that.”