According to the Census Bureau, in the United States nearly half a million households lack hot and cold running water, a bathtub, a shower, or a working toilet.
Infrastructure has been at the forefront of public discourse lately, especially after a botched repair job of a pipe in Flint, Michigan resulted in lead contamination seeping into water supplies. Yet, in places like Lowndes County, Alabama, there is almost no infrastructure to begin with. Less than half of the poor, mostly-black population reside on a municipal sewer line. While this is not a problem for most of the one in five Americans who do not reside on city sewer lines, the poverty in the area makes it difficult to repair broken septic tanks or to have one at all.
“We didn’t have anything — no running water, no inside bathrooms,” said John Jackson, a former mayor of White Hall, a town of about 800 in Lowndes that is more than 90 percent black and did not have running water until the early 1980s. “Those were things we were struggling for.”
While there is not a formal count as to how many homes are without proper septic systems, Kevin White, an environmental engineering professor at the University of South Alabama, said that a survey that he did in a neighboring county found that about 35% of homes had septic systems that were failing, while an additional 15% had no system at all.
Ms. Rudolph, a retired seamstress, live with her husband in a tiny, white clapboard house that he built after he and his family fled their home that was on land owned by a white man who forbade the family to vote. She remembers not having electricity as a young girl in the 1950s. They obtained running water in the early 1990s and used an outhouse until the mid-1990s.
Their toilet is a vast improvement, but there are still issues. “The smell gets so bad,” said Ms. Rudolph. Rain can make the situation even worse. One recent downpour brought its contents gurgling up to the rim.
“I was sitting there looking at it and got me a plunger,” she said. “It took me some plunging to get it clear. I was scared it was going to come back and go on the floor. Horrible.”
The state of Alabama has tried taking action to fix the problem. The state even tried arresting those who did not comply and install a septic system in the 2000’s, but this was met with backlash. Ultimately, the problem prevails, largely due to cost.
“There are some options that may be available, but it’s going to cost thousands of dollars, and most people here can’t afford it. The answer, quite frankly, is not out there yet.” Professor White said.
Some change is happening, but it’s slow going. The town of White Hall recently received funding to connect around 50 homes to sewer lines for the first time in its history.
“Time is going to be the only thing that solves this problem,” said Eli Seaborn, a White Hall councilmen said. “It took more than 50 years for it to happen. But hopefully, it won’t take more than 50 years to fix it.”