IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In unrelenting heat, this small Arkansas town hasn’t had clean water for nearly 4 weeks

After a water main broke, Helena-West Helena went without any water for 20 hours in late June, when temperatures pushed 100 degrees. Weeks later, a boil water alert remains in place.

Helena-West Helena, a small town in east central Arkansas, is under excessive heat warning Tuesday, as it is projected to hit 95 degrees. And that comes on top of more than three weeks without clean water.

Seventy miles south of Memphis, the 9,000 residents in a  town Mark Twain once called “one of the prettiest situations on the Mississippi” have been under a boil water alert since the end of June.

Now, the situation is beyond frustrating, with residents and city officials exasperated that help has not come despite the dire circumstances, as they are forced to use bottled water in any way they can to bathe, cook and stay hydrated. 

Helena-West Helena’s issues stem from an aging infrastructure, with pipes at least 60 years old bursting in various parts of the city, according to Mayor Christopher Franklin.

Issues came to a head on June 25, when a main water line broke causing the city’s computer operating system that runs the water plant to automatically fail. That left the community, which is 75% Black, without water for 20 hours amid a high temperature of 97 degrees.

Helen-West Helena.
Helena-West Helena.Google Maps

The city issued the cautionary boil water alert as the heat soared to a high of 100 degrees by June 30. Now in mid-July, that alert remains in place as leaks sprout from various parts of the compromised infrastructure.

City officials who spoke with NBC News estimate that it would cost $1 million to $10 million to repair the antiquated piping system. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued Helena-West Helena a $100,000 loan to help repair leaks in its primary water system, not nearly enough to resolve the problem, Franklin and his chief of staff, James Valley, said. Water returned, but the pressure was low. And more leaks have developed  throughout the water system.

Franklin, a native of Helena-West Helena who became mayor in January, said he has been consumed with acquiring aid and had been “reluctant” to share his thoughts on the lingering crisis.

But he told NBC News that his pleas for more aid from state and federal authorities have wrought little. He said he cannot help but believe the lack of support is because the community is majority Black.

The Arkansas National Guard was called in by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders to provide potable water for residents of Helena-West Helena.
The Arkansas National Guard was called in by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders to provide potable water for residents of Helena-West Helena.Arkansas National Guard

“In America, where people have the right to good, quality drinking water, the federal government should be running aid to provide that,” Franklin said. “Instead, there’s no sense of urgency for us. 

“I mean, why would it be? We’re Black. There’s no urgency until they want our vote. And that’s what’s happening here. What else are we left to think?” 

Zenovia Martin-Smith, a Helena-West Helena resident of 31 years, called the situation “ridiculous.” 

“You see how you like it if you can’t cook with the water at your home, or take a shower in it, or drink it,” Martin-Smith said. “And the worst part about it is because we’re Black, we can’t get excited about the problem being fixed any time soon. Shoot, it’s already been three weeks.”

Valley, who previously served as mayor and CEO of the city, said Huckabee Sanders’ loan was helpful, but not enough. 

“The state can help us by forgiving that loan as a grant, but certainly $100,000 is just kind of a drop in the bucket to the level of concerns that we have with this water system,” Valley said. “A lot of work needs to be done. Some of the problems are about infrastructure being neglected over the years. It’s just been a systemic failure.”

Huckabee Sanders’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

Franklin called on Arkansas’ two senators, Tom Cotton and John Boozman, both Republicans, like Huckabee Sanders, and “didn’t get a good response,” he said.

Cotton sent an aide to Helena-West Helena last week; Boozman is scheduled to send one next week, Franklin said. 

Arkansas National Guard respond to the water crisis in Helena-West Helena.
The Arkansas National Guard providing potable water for residents of Helena-West Helena.Arkansas National Guard

“That’s not helping us. We need resources. I’m not a begging type of person and I shouldn’t have to beg for my people to have clean running water. But that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing everything we can, but we need outside help to solve the issues.”

Cotton and Boozman did not respond to a request for comment.  

Franklin lauded the Arkansas National Guard, the Red Cross, Wal-mart and Dollar General for their efforts to provide support and bottled water. But if those entities are the only sources of help, his city is in for a long hot summer. Which leads Franklin and Valley back to the question of why this crisis has lingered with minimal substantive response.

“I’ve been Black all my life, so none of this comes as a surprise — the lack of response or the trying to cast blame on somebody else rather than taking care of the problem,” Valley said. “We know that when people want to move quickly, when they want to move money quickly, when they want to send help quickly, they can do it. The government is empowered to do what it chooses to do. In this instance — as it happened in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, and a host of other places that don’t make the news — help has been slow to come.” 

Flint’s water woes took years before its crisis was resolved. Residents were issued a boil water warning in 2014 and many were stricken with diseases related to contamination. But the boil water alert in Flint was not rescinded until earlier this year — nine years after the crisis began. Even as recently as this week, the city issued a boil water advisory that lasted a day.

 In seven months as mayor, Franklin, 40, has had 90 abandoned homes demolished in an effort to eliminate eyesores and ultimately attract people back to a city that has had a dramatic fall in population over the last 20 years. “It’s the perfect opportunity to go beneath those houses and replace the water lines,” he said. 

Perhaps more troubling for Franklin has been the racism he has experienced since he beat out a white incumbent last year. He said he’s received death threats, had his property intruded upon and been attacked on social media by people who did not want to see another Black man as mayor. 

“It’s a lot,” he said. “But I’ve lived here all my life and I’m committed to the people of this community getting the basic right they should have — clean water. I’m not arguing about a football game. I’m arguing about the quality of life for Black people and all the people in this inner city.”