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Southern W.Va. scrambles for water

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On foot, in cars or while towing luggage carriers or pushing wheelbarrows, thousands of Kanawha Valley residents spent at least part of Friday lined up to receive emergency rations of safe water at distribution points across the region.

With no solution in sight for restoring potable water to the West Virginia American Water system in Kanawha and eight surrounding counties, and little bottled water remaining on the shelves of area supermarkets, few options were available for obtaining safe water.

Zachary Smith of Charleston's Knollwood neighborhood was one of more than 100 people lined up outside the Charleston Fire Department station on Morris Street at about 1 p.m., waiting for an announced 2 p.m. delivery of bottled water for emergency distribution.

"We tried to get water here in town last night, but we ended up driving out to Big Chimney and Elkview, and they were all sold out, too," Smith said. "We did finally manage to get a couple of bottles from an Exxon station at Elkview."

Terri Triplett of Institute was among more than 1,000 people who got safe drinking water from a drive-through distribution site set up in the parking lot of the South Charleston Recreation Center.

"I only had to wait about 20 minutes to get mine -- it wasn't bad at all," said Triplett, who filled her 10-gallon water cooler and a 1-gallon thermos with water from a West Virginia National Guard "buffalo" tank.

When Brenda Keeling of Dunbar showed up at the center after supplies of bottled water were exhausted, with no containers to get water from the buffalo tank, Triplett gave here several bottles of her water.

Rita Burns and Joy Christian arrived at the South Charleston site on foot, toting a collapsible wheelbarrow and a luggage carrier. Residents of the nearby Kenna Homes neighborhood, the women opted to walk to the site, rather than drive, because of severe traffic congestion in the area.

"We're getting some bottles to share with our neighbors," Burns said. "Some of them aren't able to get out and get water themselves. We may be making another run later today."

In all, 1,200 cases of bottled water and several thousand gallons of buffalo-distributed water were dispensed at the South Charleston Recreation Center site before it was shut down about noon and relocated at the parking lot of the Gestamp stamping plant on MacCorkle Avenue.

South Charleston Police Chief B.L. Rinehart said that, while the recreation center site operated efficiently once vehicles arrived there, the large number of people attempting to turn off Jefferson Road to enter the facility was causing traffic problems.

"Traffic's backed up on the interstate and in every direction," Rinehart said, mainly because of the recreation center's close proximity to the MacCorkle Avenue exit of Interstate 64 and to often-congested Jefferson Road.

It wasn't just humans who lacked water in the Kanawha Valley on Friday.

At the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association's animal shelter, firefighters were installing a pump on loan from the Malden Volunteer Fire Department to bring water from nearby Coonskin Branch into the shelter for use in cleaning floors and cages.

"We used towels to pick up waste last night and today, but you don't want to go more than 24 hours without giving the cages a scrubbing," shelter director Chelsea Staley said.

When it was announced Thursday that tap water was unsafe to use for drinking or cleaning, "we initially had nothing to give our animals to drink," said Staley. "But the community came out in droves to bring us bottled water and supplies."

Keeping the 200 dogs and cats housed in the shelter safe and well "is a big responsibility," Staley said.

The shelter was closed Friday, except to receive donations.

At least 30 water distribution sites were established in the counties affected by the chemically tainted water. Fifty-one truckloads of bottled water were en route to National Guard headquarters Friday to continue the distribution effort.

Charleston resident Bob McElwain made the trip to Hurricane, which has its own water reservoir and treatment plant. The Putnam County city opened several locations Friday for people to bring their own containers and collect water.

"We came down to get something to eat and get some water," McElwain said. "I saw this on TV, and it didn't look crowded. You go uptown, over by the high school, and there are just big, long lines."

McElwain and several other people had stopped at the Hurricane Walmart, where the city's water department had set up three water distribution stations. Because Hurricane has its own water supply, none of the city's restaurants or other businesses was forced to shut down.

Kelly Payne, a resident of Poca, had tried elsewhere before coming to Hurricane. Payne and her husband have nine animals and were trying to find water for them.

"Not only could I not find it in Putnam County earlier today," she said, "but I was in Huntington, and they were out of water, too."

Teresa Graley, also of Poca, said she had run into issues, too, trying to find water in other parts of the area.

"We've been to Dunbar, and they're out; St. Albans is out -- Kmart, Kroger, all of those places were out of water," Graley said.

City employees weren't the only ones distributing water to residents Friday. Woodmen of the World, a member-owned life insurance company that performs emergency outreach efforts, also distributed water at the Walmart plaza, and plans to purchase 30,000 bottles of water for distribution agency's West Virginia office.

"We had the funding -- there was just nowhere to get it," Fox said. "What we did in the meantime is break out our reserve tanks, and they're 425 gallons each."

According to Fox, Woodmen did similar outreach during the 2012 derecho, and might begin a rotation to distribute water in surrounding counties if the emergency situation continues.

"We partner with [the] Red Cross to do disaster relief in times like this, so we're already prepared to jump in when things like this happen," Fox said. "The fire stations, EMS, the city of Huntington all have our number -- every area across the U.S. has that connection with their local chapter outreach manager, so they'll jump right on it and say, 'Hey, what can you guys do?'"

The leak, which occurred sometime Thursday morning, originated at Freedom Industries and contaminated the Elk River, the source of water for West Virginia American Water's treatment center. A "do not use" advisory has been issued in nine counties, and water distribution centers opened across the region after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the federal government declared a state of emergency for part of the state.

Other Putnam County water distribution centers include the Hurricane Fire Department, Chapman Funeral Home on Teays Valley Road in Hurricane, the Culloden Volunteer Fire Department, the Putnam County Public Service District in Scott Depot and the John Henson Center in Hurricane.

Staff writer Lydia Nuzum reported from Hurricane. Reach her at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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