Without water in W. Va.

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 13, 2014

‘Don’t use any water,” he said and handed me the key to my room. “You can flush the toilet.”
It was 1 a.m. I had just checked into a hotel in Charleston, W.Va.
“Don’t use any water?” I asked.
“The water is contaminated.”
“Where? Here or all hotels?” I asked wondering if other hotels were OK.
“All the water in Charleston and nine counties is contaminated,” he responded, bored, probably having said the same thing a hundred times that night.
“What happened?”
“That polar vortex caused a pipe to crack and some chemicals used in the coal mines leaked into the water system. By the way, breakfast will be limited because we can’t wash anything. Also, no coffee or tea.”
“All restaurants are closed?” I had a breakfast meeting in the morning.
“Yep. Almost everything except hospitals.”
“Where’s the closest hotel with clean water?” I asked wondering if I could get my money back.
“Probably Beckley, about 75 miles south.” That was not a good solution. It was 1 a.m. and my meeting was at 9 a.m.
“How long will this last?”
“No one knows.”
“Is it lethal?” I asked.
“No one knows yet,” he said.
I later read that particular chemical is used in coal processing. Because human consumption was never anticipated, the potential effects on humans has never been tested.
“Just don’t use the water,” he said and handed me a bottle of water.
I headed to my room wondering if this was a big deal nationally. I turned on CNN and other news stations. Not a word.
I taped a sheet of paper on the bathroom faucet to prevent using it accidentally and began my nightly ritual. Using bottled water, I brushed my teeth and rinsed, but cleaning my toothbrush was another matter. Pouring bottled water into a glass, I swished my toothbrush till it seemed clean enough.
After using the toilet, I instinctively reached for the sink. One of my meds is an ointment. At my age, my bladder calls nightly. Now that I couldn’t, I realized how often I wash my hands.
Morning arrived with no way to wash my face, shower, or shave. (Having missed No-Shave-November, I wondered if it was my time to grow a beard.)
My meeting partner brought me some oranges for breakfast. Looking at my hair going in whatever direction it chose, he said his parents lived 30 miles upstream from the contamination.
Before we left, I went to the hotel bathroom and instinctively washed my hands. As we were leaving, he reached out to shake my hand. “I’m contaminated,” I said. “Me, too,” he replied.
With Charleston in my rearview mirror, a city with no water and no idea how long the crisis would continue, the importance of government regulation was inescapable. During my 10-hour stay, I had slept in a building with fire retardant materials, electricity and plumbing, driven on highways, gone over bridges and through tunnels, eaten food, taken drugs, used toothpaste, flushed toilets, bought gasoline, driven a car, NOT used water, and much more … protected by government regulation.
On the radio was a story of the first cigarette health warnings 50 years ago after decades of advertisements promoting smoking as a healthy lifestyle choice. A traffic backup was caused by a three-foot wide, two-foot deep weather-created pothole with one car trapped in it, probably cursing the government for the lack of warning.
Like government or not, we rely on it and expect it to protect us. Behind me were 300,000 people without water probably wishing that government would show up quickly.
David Post lives in Salisbury.