Online rumors partially to blame for drop in water pressure in Mississippi capital, manager says

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Law enforcement agencies are investigating whether social media rumors about a potential water outage prompted people to quickly fill bathtubs with tap water in Mississippi's capital during a cold snap and cause a drop in pressure that temporarily made faucets run dry for thousands of customers of the city’s long-troubled system.

Taps ran dry Wednesday and Thursday for almost a quarter of Jackson’s 52,000 water customers as icy conditions strained local infrastructure. Officials for JXN Water, the private corporation that has been under a federal order to run Jackson’s system since late 2022, said a “deliberate misinformation campaign” was partially to blame. People responded to social media posts by filling bathtubs with water in a short period, causing demand to spike beyond what the water system could support, water manager Ted Henifin said.

JXN Water said in a statement Friday that U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate authorized the release of information about the investigation and advised the corporation on what to communicate to the public.

The organization did not specify which law enforcement agencies are involved or what charges might be brought if people are found to have spread false information on social media.

JXN Water identified one specific social media post, but Palacios said the organization had not traced its origin.

“Just got word they are about to shut off water in Jackson,” the post said. “If you’re in Jackson, fill up your tubs and jugs! Get prepared for not having water.”

The water woes began as an arctic blast kept temperatures below freezing in Jackson for nearly three days. The temperature rose on Thursday, but the National Weather Service warned that dangerously cold air would return this weekend.

Jackson residents and officials were already concerned that frigid conditions could disrupt the water system. Cold snaps in 2021 and 2022 caused frozen pipes and drops in water pressure across the city of nearly 150,000 residents. People had been told to prepare for past disasters by keeping jugs or bathtubs full of water.

Maintenance crews had restored water to all but about 1,000 customers Friday.

Ameerah Palacios, a spokesperson for JXN Water, said the news release about an investigation was partially written by Wingate, who is overseeing a federal intervention to improve the water system.

“Judge Wingate, that's a man who chooses his words very carefully," Palacios told The Associated Press in an interview. "The way that he worded it was, all of 'the appropriate law enforcement agencies,’ so definitely more than one at play.”

A court clerk took a phone message for Wingate on Friday, but the judge did not immediately return a call to the AP.

It was unclear how many Jackson residents saw the social media posts or were influenced by them.

Although JXN Water did not release names of anyone who shared the post it cited, AP identified a Facebook post from Wednesday that had the exact wording. The Facebook account belongs to Bob Hickingbottom of Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Constitution Party candidate in 2019 and tried to run for governor in 2023 before the state Democratic Party removed him from its primary ballot.

In one phone interview with the AP, Hickingbottom said somebody might have put the post on his page.

“Something like that would be outside the realm of civilized behavior," Hickingbottom said.

In a second phone call moments later, Hickingbottom said he put the water post on his page and he thought he was sharing information to help people.

“I’m a flamethrower when it comes to politics, but this is not politics," Hickinbottom said of Jackson's water system.

The latest disruption in Jackson water service came a week after Mississippi health officials issued and then quickly lifted a health advisory after tests identified E. coli in the water supplies of Jackson and a suburb. Henifin said he believed the tests were false positives caused by lab contamination, but the state health department stood by its tests.

Wingate appointed Henifin in November 2022 to oversee reforms to Jackson’s water system after infrastructure breakdowns during the late summer of that year caused many city residents to go days without safe running water.