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Monday night, as officials started lifting the tap water restrictions in parts of downtown Charleston, Harper was eagerly awaiting a return to normality in her suburban town of 1,222 people.
She kept an eye on a website set up by West Virginia American Water that showed areas where the utility felt levels of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, the polluting chemical, had dropped enough that humans could again drink the water.
At about 9 p.m., American Water lifted the ban on the Harpers’ area, and Melissa Harper began flushing out their home’s plumbing, following the water company’s instructions (PDF).
American Water wants customers to flush water in stages and in different locations, a strategy that the company says will avoid overloading the water network.
Harper says she looks forward to having clean drinking water on tap and getting through the nine loads of laundry that piled up during the days without water.
Elsewhere in the Charleston area, people are still missing tap water and continue to rely on bottled or free water distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency by municipal authorities.
In Racine, a rural enclave some 20 miles southeast of Charleston, a steady stream of cars keeps arriving at the volunteer fire department to pick up pallets of bottled water.
While tap-water restrictions remain in effect, the limit is two pallets per car per day.
Local residents, from the elderly to middle-school students sprung from classes because of the water crisis, are participating in the distribution effort, directing traffic and hauling water rations to a line of waiting cars.
Lt. Jamie Smith, 41, a towering 6-foot-6-inch volunteer firefighter, told Al Jazeera there have been eight to 10 volunteers at the station around the clock since the restrictions were announced.
“I haven’t left since this started,” said Smith, estimating they had served about 3,000 people since Friday. Volunteers have been taking water to the sick, elderly or bedridden when called.
“The Bible says the life of the flesh is in the blood, and right now the life of the flesh is in water,” said Larry “Rocky” Nelson, the fire company’s 73-year-old chaplain. “Right now, water’s more precious than gold.”
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