It doesn’t take much to make the streets of Alabama Village flood. Originally built as worker housing for the shipyards in nearby Mobile, streets in the Prichard, Alabama, neighborhood are regularly awash in water.
It’s partly because of the heavy rainstorms that are common along the Gulf Coast, increasingly so due to climate change. But the compounding issue in Prichard is the municipal water system, which is so decrepit that nearly 60% of the 19,000-person town’s drinking water is lost due to leaks in service lines and water mains.
With so much water, some 73 million gallons a month, already needing to drain out of the sewers before even one drop of rain falls, the town’s drainage system is essentially brimming at all times. And until last week, the very poor and 91% Black residents of Prichard were the ones paying the price — not only with the flooding, but dangerously low water pressure (fire hydrants often can’t supply water in the event of a fire), and monthly water bills as high as $7,000.
Now, the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board, which procures and delivers water for the town of 19,000 (with no water source of its own, nearly all of Prichard’s water is bought from Mobile) is being placed under receivership after being sued by Synovus Bank, one of the holders of a $55 million bond that the board defaulted on.
There is a separate effort underway, spearheaded by the Southern Environmental Law Center, to get the Environmental Protection Agency to use emergency powers on behalf of the rate-paying residents, some of whom may lose their homes as a result of the dramatic state of disrepair that the water system is in.
As the SELC petition to the EPA explains, “the Board is now threatening to shut down the water for approximately 200 residents where the greatest loss occurs. These residents would be forced out of their homes.”
Forced Out by Eminent Domain
Many of those homes are in Alabama Village. If the plan goes through, the state would use its eminent domain powers to buy residents out of their homes, regardless of whether or not they want to leave. Renters would have to relocate without any financial support from the state.
The neighborhood is deeply blighted, dotted with burned-down homes (some of which might still be standing if the water system was properly maintained and had enough pressure for the fire hydrants to work) and a variety of refuse that people dump on the streets in the area; the market value for the homes there will likely not be enough to pay all the costs for families to relocate.
Like Flint, Jackson, New Orleans, and so many other American towns that have faced water crises, Prichard is deeply, historically Black. It borders on Africatown, a community founded by people who were forcibly carried from West Africa to Alabama on the Clotida, which is considered to be the last slave ship to dock in the United States.
While Prichard prospered in the post-war era, and was both larger and more diverse at the time, the combination of white flight and the collapse in the ship-building industry in Mobile hit the town hard.
Today, the average household income is just over $30,000 annually. While the dwindling tax base certainly contributed to the very old pipes being neglected (some were originally installed around 80 years ago), some water board members were indicted last year for allegedly buying luxury goods and other items on board credit cards at the same time the utility was claiming it could not make repairs in places like Alabama Village.
The EPA has yet to respond to the SELC petition, and while figuring out how to save money in part by reducing water losses will invariably be central to the receivership’s management of the utility, it’s unclear how or when residents will be able to rely on Prichard’s water system. And while the town remains in limbo, the situation is forcing some people to leave.
“The city and the water people think the less they do, the more people will move out,” resident Betty Catlin told Inside Climate News. “They want us to fade away.”