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Putnam officials say response to water crisis went well

WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Putnam County emergency responders and volunteers said Tuesday they would continue to work to provide water and aid to area residents affected by last week's do-not-use advisory from West Virginia American Water.

At a Putnam County Commission meeting Tuesday, Frank Chapman, director of the Office of Emergency Services for Putnam County, said his agency and others have been working around the clock to provide water at distribution centers across the county.

"We had, from the time we were notified of the incident -- which was around 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday night -- within 24 hours we had started putting water into the hands of Putnam County citizens," Chapman said. "That's rare -- normally, you're looking at 72 hours. It was right around 36 to 48 hours before we started to see anything from FEMA."

The chemical leak from Freedom Industries, a chemical storage and transport company located along the Elk River, left 300,000 West Virginian American Water customers without potable water. Various local, state and federal organizations, including the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were dispatched to nine counties to provide aid.

According to Putnam County Sheriff Steve Deweese, the operation in Putnam County ran more smoothly than he would have expected. Deweese, who has a military background, helped coordinate the relief efforts.

"It's nice to wear two hats sometimes, but sometimes it's overwhelming," Deweese said. "When all of this took place, I had foreseen a huge tactical nightmare, but it was not the case in Putnam County."

Numbers reported from the various water distribution centers indicate that Poca High School was the second-most visited site during the emergency, with the Charleston Civic Center being the first, Deweese said. 

"We've escorted 26 53-foot trailers throughout the county since this incident occurred," Deweese said. "The good thing about this county is that we did not have our major hospital [CAMC Teays Valley] affected. There were a few nursing homes, but we could provide for them with box trucks and normal vehicles."

The county was able to achieve an even more notable feat, according to Deweese -- it was the only one of nine affected counties to never run out of water at any of its distribution sites.

"I've never seen anything like it," said County Manager Brian Donat. "They've got so much support from the Red Cross and the National Guard -- it has just been a tremendous operation, and to see semi-truckload after semi-truckload come through, and to unload it and transport it to all of these places -- it's just been something to see."

The operation was not without confusion. According to Chapman, he was first told that only 40 households in Hurricane were impacted by the spill. The real number was closer to 1,000.

"I guess there wasn't clarity about which residents of Hurricane would be impacted," said County Commissioner Andy Skidmore. "Those along U.S. 60 in Hurricane, especially, and I think even some of them were confused, because there are some residents who are on West Virginia American Water but who pay their bill to the city."

For law enforcement, Deweese said the only change in crime patterns for the county involved domestic violence complaints; 16 incidents have been reported since Thursday.

"It's a high number," the sheriff said. "Everyone is inside, and tempers are short because there's no water, so we can likely attribute it to that. We always see an increase in domestic violence during the winter months because of 'cabin fever.' "

Skidmore said the county also had considerable input from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, which took over clinical operations in Putnam County in July of last year after financial problems cause the agency to fold. The KCHD has provided services to Putnam County despite the fact that the state Division of Health and Human Resources have not released the Putnam agency's threat preparedness grant to the KCHD.

The commission also discussed the upcoming special election in Poca. The city was recently able to complete its sewage system and hopes to sell to the Putnam Public Service District. Residents of Poca will be able to vote on the issue on Feb. 1.

The commission also voted for Commissioner Steve Andes to serve as president of the commission for 2014.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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