National media have honed their attention on the impact of freezing temperatures in Texas, but residents in Louisiana have been enduring crisis-level weather challenges of their own.
The state endured sub-freezing temperatures around February 12 and some days after, which have led to burst pipes and unsafe drinking water, leaving residents and businesses in Alexandria, Lake Charles and Shreveport without clean water going on two weeks. A water boil adviser went into effect in those cities for at least a week until this weekend, but some activists in Shreveport, which is 57 percent Black, have told The Root many residents still feel water running from the tap is unsafe—even if it is boiled.
“We’re really assed out,” Caitlin Douglas, community activist and founder of We The People, told The Root. “I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s horrible. And so even my face has started to break out. I just noticed that today. It’s second-hand water. It’s not even water that anybody should be trying to boil to drink. And a lot of people are saying too that even when they’re boiling the water, there’s a whole bunch of residue left over in the water that they can’t even get out of the water after boiling it.”
Another local activist, Omari Ho-Sang, told The Root that while the city did designate water pickup stations around the city, many residents either didn’t have the transportation to get to them or inclement weather made driving nearly impossible. So locals organized and used their own vehicles to take water directly to as many people as they could. Ho-Sang said Black Voters Matter sent $6,000 to her organization to support their work on the ground.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins declared a state of emergency more than two weeks ago in anticipation of severe weather. President Joe Biden approved the state of emergency a week later.
Then there are the economic fallouts caused by residents’ inability to get to work and businesses unable to offer services because water issues prevented them from operating.
Many people went without electricity for days and struggled to cook. Making matters worse was some restaurants had to purchase water to continue operating. Some people could not do even the most basic things like flush the toilet. Many of the roads were impassable because of the state’s inability to clear them.
“We think we’re just in phase one of this situation,” Ho-Sang, co-founder of 45 Days of Action, said. “I’m sure they’re doing quick fixes now, but those pipes and infrastructure are hundreds of years old and it’s got to be replaced. There’s actually been a consent decree that’s already been put on our water system (pdf). So this has just worsened it just like the pandemic worsened things. This has worsened what was already going on with the pandemic, and what was going on before that.”
The water boil advisory was lifted Saturday, but some residents still are unsure of the cleanliness of the water. Kantaki Washington, a resident of Shreveport, said her water is slightly colored and has some sort of filmy substance rising to the top after it is boiled. She’s continuing to use bottled water to brush her teeth and cook.
Though the weather triggered what activists are calling a water crisis in Shreveport, the underlying issue is the city’s more than 100-year-old water system that local officials have tried and failed to modernize through ballot initiatives, which have been unsuccessful. The most recent attempt was back in 2019.
In a statement to The Root, Mayor Perkins said that he devoted a great deal of time working with community leaders and activists, educating residents about the bond initiative to modernize the water system.
“In addition to eight informational meetings at community centers throughout the city, we did numerous TV interviews, social media posts, informational videos and the bond was engineered by a citizens committee with two representatives from every council district,” Perkins said. “Our primary opposition came from City Council members and Republicans. Three council members, one Democrat and two Republicans voted against having a bond and publicly denounced it throughout our campaign. Republicans attacked the bond after I refused to illegally allow our police officers to support a Donald Trump campaign rally.”
The Shreveport Times interviewed William Daniel, Shreveport’s Water and Sewerage director, who did not give a direct answer as to how the system needs to be updated. That’s partly because neither he nor others likely know the details of what is wrong because the freezing weather presented officials with a challenge they did not anticipate. He said the city would have to update its Geographic Information System to assess the water system.
“When you do that, that allows you to look at the age of any piece of pipe, when it was installed, how many breaks it had, what size it is, where the valves are, all the information you need to make critical decisions,” Daniel told the Shreveport Times.
Activists and several residents say the situation is dire for them, but virtually nothing has been written about Louisiana’s weather issues at the national level. Councilwoman LeVette Fuller (District B) is confident that local officials will ensure the integrity of testing the water and that those findings will be double-checked by state agencies.
“But I do believe that some of these pipes are so old and so weak that it doesn’t take much to disturb the pressurized system,” Fuller said. “Part of what happens in this particular event was that the pumps were disturbed. Like we have pumping stations across the city in order to get enough pressure to get water to everyone’s homes in a very sprawling area, with a decreasing population.”
Perkins told The Root that the city’s next steps are to do an after action review to see exactly what occurred with Shreveport’s infrastructure and processes and how they can improve upon that. He said he has also asked the chairman of the City Council Infrastructure Committee, who Perkin’s said voted against the initial bond, to call a committee meeting and present a plan, with consensus, to overhaul Shreveport’s infrastructure and make it more resilient for future extreme weather events.
Ho-Sang said while people are focusing on Texas, a real economic depression already exacerbated by the pandemic will doubly hurt the majority Black city of Shreveport.
“Folks are pulling their lives back together because they couldn’t go to work for about a week and a half,” she said. “Our low-wage workers who were not able to make it to work and lost wages. Folks who we know who have lost their jobs. We know one young lady who was trying to serve the city with food, but because of the boil advisory, she was not supposed to cook in her kitchen. So her lease was terminated. Now the school system is 100 percent virtual because their facilities are not prepared to go back online because it has a water situation. We’re looking at children who are already in poverty, already suffering from the digital divide, now at home. Many of them without the internet. So the economic impact, the academic impact, the financial impact of this is going to be far reaching.”