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‘Unsung Heroes’ of 2022 Water Crisis Reflect on First Anniversary

Nancy Gaynor posing beside police chief Joseph Wade
Community organizer Nancy Gaynor and Jackson Police Chief Joseph Wade pose for a photo at the City of Jackson’s Community Champions award ceremony on Aug. 29, 2023. Photo courtesy Nancy Gaynor.

In the days following last year’s water-system outage in Jackson, Miss., one image consistently flashed across television screens and online sources: citizens handing out cases of water to those in need. One of those citizens was Nancy Gaynor, a longtime resident, community activist and minister.

At a special reception hosted at the Jackson Convention Complex on Aug. 29, the City of Jackson honored Gaynor and others deemed the “unsung heroes and community champions” of the 2022 Jackson water crisis. The city recognized activists, religious leaders and other community members including Jackson Public Schools students for their efforts to provide support during the emergency.

Gaynor said the ceremony was packed with people ready to celebrate the honorees and the work that came about when people came together to serve during the height of the crisis. She explained her concern about what she saw unfolding in the early days of the crisis.

“This water situation started way before last year, but we didn’t know how long it was going to last this time,” she said. “We kept our eyes and ears open and did a lot more praying than usual.”

‘My Heart Has Always Been With Seniors’

As Jackson’s water issues played out in the public eye, outsiders began to question how Mississippi’s capital city could be suffering from what seemed to be catastrophic infrastructure failures. Insiders like Nancy Gaynor knew well that boil-water advisories were nothing new for residents in Jackson.

However, what seemed to many residents to be just another boil advisory in Jackson’s long history of infrastructure issues turned out to be the beginning of a month-and-a-half-long absence of drinkable tap water.

Awards line a table for Jackson’s Community Champions awards ceremony on Aug. 29, 2023, where the City honored community members for their efforts during the water crisis of 2022. Photo courtesy Fahrenheit Creative Group

That August, rainfall caused severe flooding of Mississippi’s Pearl River watershed, while at the same time, infrastructure at Jackson’s main water treatment facility, O.B. Curtis, failed.

The overlap of both disasters left more than 180,000 residents without safe water to drink, bathe in or brush their teeth with. At the same time, the water pressure waned so low that many residents could not flush their toilets without manually filling and dumping buckets of water into them.

As the days went on without reliable water, Gaynor identified that one of her main priorities was serving Jackson’s vulnerable population of senior citizens.

“My heart has always been with seniors,” she said. “Many of these people are on fixed incomes. Where was the money supposed to come from for all this water?”

She remembers that transportation to the water distribution sites also proved to be an issue for many elderly residents at the time.

“They could not drive and get to us, or they did not want to wait over an hour in line,” Gaynor recalled. “We developed a system to work quickly and we served people with a smile.”

After the City’s Community Champions awards ceremony, Gaynor emphasized this point.

“We did not want people to feel like second-class citizens,” she said. “We wanted people to know this wasn’t their fault. There were seniors who couldn’t even lift up a bucket of water to flush their toilet. I literally went to seniors’ homes to flush their toilets.”

Gaynor’s service is just one example of the many ways that Jacksonians stepped up to help each other during that time.

‘I Remember The Uncertainty of It All’

The City also honored Dr. Andrew Clark, owner of Northtown Pharmacy on Old Canton Road, for his efforts. Clark said that attending the Aug. 29 ceremony allowed him to see the lasting positive effects people have made throughout the city.

“I had the opportunity to learn how people in all seven wards approached the crisis differently,” he said. “Everybody met the unique needs of their community, but we all had the same goal.”

Thinking back, Clark says the many ways that people stepped up when the initial news broke about the water-system emergency last year inspired him to act himself.

“I remember first hearing that we weren’t going to have clean drinking water,” he explained. “I remember the uncertainty of it all. Being in Jackson, we’re used to boil-water notices, but this felt different. We weren’t certain how long this would last.”

Community members look on as honorees accept awards from the City at the Community Champions ceremony on Aug. 29, 2023. Photo courtesy Fahrenheit Creative Group

Then, he thought of his patients, people from all backgrounds who receive their prescriptions from Northside Pharmacy.

“Patients need clean drinking water to take their medications,” Clark said. “When I went home that evening, I thought, ‘How can we become a resource for the community?’”

By the next morning, he and his pharmacy team had set up a water-distribution site for those in need. He recalled how others answered the call to serve in their own way.

The Christ United Methodist Church down the street from Clark’s Northtown Pharmacy began distributing water as well. Clark said some individuals gave out water from their homes directly to their neighbors. He saw others load up pallets on the back of their trucks and deliver to those in need.

“Regular people stepped up,” Clark said. “Even people from outside of Jackson donated money. They saw us helping ourselves and not waiting on anyone else to do it.”

But while community members and activists took matters into their own hands early on, greater help, in the form of federal dollars, has arrived to fund a more permanent fix to Jackson’s infrastructure issues. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced “an initial $115 million investment towards repairing the city’s water infrastructure challenges and delivering clean water for all,” part of a $600-million assistance package to repair the system.

Although local and state leaders have gone back and forth about just who is responsible for Jackson’s water issues, including who should oversee the allocation of federal funds, Clark said he has plenty of hope for the future of Jackson. He said the connections he saw people form during the height of the 2022 Jackson water crisis still endure.

“At the event, I saw that many people have continued doing that work,” Clark said. “Because of the crisis, people mobilized and a lot of organizations were formed. The fight continues.”

The evening awards ceremony and the clean-up day that preceded it were parts of a series of events the City of Jackson hosted for the community to reflect on the anniversary of Jackson’s water crisis.

Full List of Award Honorees

  • Dr. Andrew Clark, Northtown Pharmacy
  • Pastor Eddie Rester, Christ United Methodist Church
  • Socrates Garrett
  • Nancy Gaynor
  • Pastor James Henley
  • Pastor R.K. Moore
  • Pastor Sam Thompson
  • Frank Figgers
  • Sirena Wilson, Shady Oaks Homeowners and Community Neighborhood Association
  • Seymore Bell
  • Johnnie Byrd
  • Reverend Calvin Day
  • Ramesh Patel
  • Earnest Ward
  • Jackson Public Schools in Ward 5
  • Derrick Kelly
  • Robert Martez Hopkins
  • Tina Wallace
  • Courtney Warner
  • Putalamus White, Jackson Resource Center
  • Northminster Baptist Church and the “A Wider Net” community service and education project
  • Rosemont Missionary Baptist Church
  • Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign
  • Andy Boone
  • New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church

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