The West Virginia water crisis and how one family coped

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Just in case you missed it, hundreds of thousands of people in Charleston, West Virginia, and the surrounding areas were without water in what is truly a worst case scenario. I’m sure many were prepared with stored water, but storing water for a week or more is something few people have considered.

Bob Keller who runs a survival supply store in Charleston was right in the middle of this crisis. I asked him to write about how his family’s experiences and what they have learned.

charleston waterThe day before any event is ordinary.  On Wednesday, I worked through my day as usual and Thursday was much of the same.  I came home and decided to take a quick nap.  My wife called and told me to turn on the television:  The Governor of West Virginia was declaring a state of emergency and a ‘Do Not Use’ order was issued for water in Charleston, the capitol city, and parts of nine counties.

A local chemical distributor, whose business is located slightly upstream of the water intake for the local water company, had leaked a substance called 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, used to clean coal prior to transport, into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River, in the middle of Charleston.  Officially, the amount of the leak was 7500 gallons.  To put this in perspective, my wife’s Honda Accord holds about 15 gallons of gasoline.  This would be equivalent to 500 Honda Accords.

As we soon learned, not much is known about the consumption of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol.  Like so many industrial chemicals, it had never been tested for human toxicity.  The only test conducted by the manufacturer, Eastman Chemical, was the amount of it necessary to kill a rat.  This lack of data, coupled with the conflicting information released to the public about the situation, added to the chaos.

image by shrff14
image by shrff14

Charleston is located in what has been called “The Chemical Valley”.  Beginning in the 50’s, most of the major chemical companies had manufacturing facilities in the area.  As business changed, many of those facilities outlived their usefulness and have since closed.  Still, there is a significant amount of chemical manufacturing here.  I say this so that you know that this is part of our local culture.

I was born here in the late 60’s, long before the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act.  I have seen the results of an ‘unscheduled release’ settled over the cars and houses like an early snow and have seen literally hundreds of dead fish floating in the river because of an upstream chemical spill.  Never, not one time, do I remember the water company issuing a ‘Do Not Use’ order.

Losing water service, on the surface, seems like a fairly mundane inconvenience.  A water main breaks, a ‘boil water’ advisory is issued, and a day or so later life returns to normal.  It was apparent rather quickly that this was different, very different.  Almost immediately, the school systems closed indefinitely and the health department closed all of the restaurants in the affected areas.  We began to hear about locations where we could get safe water (FEMA, by the way, has only provided about one gallon per person to be used over the entire emergency).

My family, as preppers , was largely ready.  We had stored water and had empty water jugs available.  We also had a rainwater catchment system ready to be installed in such an event.  When any event happens, one thing you learn quickly is where you were not fully prepared.  It uncovers the holes in your prepping plan.  The two areas where we were not fully ready were laundry and bathing.  We will be working to fill those gaps.  Luckily, we have several friends in the adjacent county who are served by another water company.  We trekked over for an afternoon last weekend and did some laundry, took showers, visited, and shared dinner.  It was good.

Currently, we still do not have a safe supply of water.  Today is Day 8.  The national media has gone home, the local officials have disappeared from the media, and the water company constantly tells us that the water is safe.  However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a warning telling pregnant women not to drink this water and local pediatricians are warning against young children drinking this water.  Over a thousand people have visited hospital emergency rooms after being told the water was fine.  Is it safe?  I don’t know.  It still smells terribly and has a greasy feel to it.  Is my family using it?  No.  There are things much more important than tap water.


13 thoughts on “The West Virginia water crisis and how one family coped”

  1. It’s just news to the majority of the nation, until it happens to you. Thanks for posting this survival mom. We don’t live in WV, but for other reasons, currently we cannot use our water. Thank God we have a natural spring close to our home, but the moral boost from clean clothes and a hot shower is indescribable.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, SurvivalMom. It wakes us ALL up to the importance of storing water. I know I haven’t considered what I would do for laundry and bathing…and have to up my game big time…

  3. We all need to be more aware on these issues, and NOT always follow when “they” say it’s safe. Media is gone so who cares how many get sick now. Sad, but true.
    A short term help for keeping you somewhat clean is baby wipes. I buy them by the case for what my grandmother called spitbaths. Work great for camping and hurricanes of a short duration.

  4. The area where I live has been hit, like most of us, with bitterly cold temps. Despite heat tape on the pipes and leaving faucets dripping i, and others, have been plagued with both frozen water pipes and sewer lines. It seems once the pipes are thawed you find the sewer lines are frozen, from lack of periodically having water run through them, I suppose. This puts many people without water. And if you do have water you can’t use it anyway because all the drains are backed up. My water supply has gotten a premature rotation this winter. Preparing can turn a catastrophe into a simple inconvenience.

  5. Worse yet is everyone bathing and showing in it. Your skin absorbs so much of what it is in contact with. SO glad you have plenty of water set aside. Stay safe!

  6. I have no tap water though for a diffierent reason and I think everyone should consider adding a five gallon insulated Igloo type water jug to their water preps. Thes jugs will keep water very hot for about 18 hours and warm for up to 36 hours. If you heat or boil water at night for the next day it will make life much easier and while you sleep your body will recover from the extra physical work of moving water via your muscles. Just prime the juge with about a quart of hot water for about 10-20 minutes then fill with hot water. I think you will be surprised on what a great job the jugs do maintaining hot water temps.

  7. Lucky for my family the day of the “leak” we were out buying supplies to replace the majority of the plumbing in our house thanks to frozen pipes. It took all day b/c stuff was sold out everywhere & looking forward to a long night & more cold we stopped at Wal-Mart on the way home to stock up in case the weather got worse & we got stranded….EVERYONE there had water in their buggies & when I noticed that it terrified me so we stopped someone to ask why & were informed if what happened, we stocked up but it was mainly diluted when it reached us. I did witness the chaos & lying of the authorities though & it was pitiful.

  8. This won’t work if your pipes are frozen or if there is no sun, but Walmart has in it’s camping section solar water bags that will hold 5 gallons of water. Worse case is if you can fill it with warn water, you can at least hang the bag and wash off.

    When spring arrives, I’m going to look into some kind of small inflatable kiddie pool for just in case the tub can’t be used, i.e., Waterbob, etc.

  9. I live in Huntington West Virginia. We have had to many things here in our town and around the tri-state area happen in the last few years. I will be preparing our family this upcoming year for what ever will be coming our way. Take care and Many Blessings.

  10. I’ve wondered how products like LifeStraw and the like would do for that situation. Anyone hear of them being used or tested there?

  11. Pingback: The West Virginia water crisis and how one family coped | WROL Newsfeed

  12. according to the information provided by the manufacturer, lifestraws do NOT filter out chemicals. they’re designed to filter out the bacteria and parasites in water that contains animal and/or human waste.

  13. I’m sold on water distillers – the fire or sun powered ones.
    No matter where you are, if you have a heat source, you have water. You can get water from damp dirt, plants, and in other ways 😉

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