Life without water in West Virginia

For one family, a toddler’s illness made them realize the importance of clean, drinkable water

South Charleston Public Works employees stack bottled water for West Virginia residents, Jan. 12.
Michael Switzer/AP

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Melissa and Thomas Harper realized their 2-year-old toddler, Braylee, was very ill Friday morning when her temperature spiked and she started moaning. Usually, they run a cool bath for her, but the water service that supplies their home had told them the night before not to use water from their faucet.

The Harpers live in West Virginia, just outside Charleston, where a lack of safe tap water has taken its toll on almost every aspect of life for hundreds of thousands of people, from the mundane, like eating at a restaurant serving a limited menu on paper plates, to the serious, like nursing a toddler with a fierce fever. 

Braylee suffers from a weakened immune system, and that means a trip to the hospital every time she has a cold or fever. 

“When you’re treating a sick child, you want to put them in a cool bath,” Melissa Harper, who lives in Elkview, a middle-class Charleston suburb, told Al Jazeera. But that wasn’t an option Friday morning. “Water is the kind of thing that you don’t miss until you don’t have it,” she said.

So the Harpers took Braylee to the Charleston Area Medical Center Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where, Melissa Harper said, the staff “thought I was there because of the water crisis.” 

In the hours after authorities announced tap-water restrictions for nine counties on Thursday evening, hundreds of people flooded local hospitals, worried that their health was at risk after having a glass of water or a bath. Although there were widespread reports of rashes, area hospitals admitted only a few people in the first hours after the leak was announced. As usable water returns, the toll has remained low. 

Many stores around Charleston sold out of bottled water shortly after tap-water restrictions were announced.
Wilson Dizard/Al Jazeera

Braylee, however, has neutropenia, or a very low count of neutrophilis, a type of white blood cell that helps fight infections, especially those caused by bacteria and fungi. Many children with her type of neutropenia outgrow it by the age of 5 or 6, said Melissa Harper. In the meantime, Braylee’s condition requires the Harpers to keep an extremely clean household.

So on Friday, with tap water unusable, “we needed to get immediate attention for what she was trying to fight,” said Harper, 32, who studies nursing at Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College in South Charleston. 

The Women’s and Children’s Hospital was almost empty that morning. A doctor saw them quickly, and they left within 90 minutes. Braylee, familiar with the hospital because of her illness, and accompanied by Violet, her stuffed plush dog, remained calm and well behaved.

“We were more scared than she was,” her mother said.

Braylee’s fever broke Friday afternoon, but the Harpers were at a disadvantage in their battle against bacteria. The water restrictions meant that instead of using hot tap water for cleaning, the Harpers had to haul water from a public tank and boil it on their stove before they could use it.

On Monday evening, as safe water trickled back into homes in the affected area, Harper remained upset that the chemical company, Freedom Industries, may have taken several hours Thursday before reporting the leak to communities that depend on water from the Elk River.

By the time the public found out, Harper said, she and her family had drunk tap water and eaten food prepared with it. Thus she won’t rule out the possibility that contaminated water played a role in her daughter’s sudden illness, saying, “It’s an odd coincidence.” 

Harper said Freedom Industries put the public at risk with the placement of its storage tanks.

“What makes me the most angry about this crisis is that this chemical plant was allowed to be located on our water system and had not taken the proper precautions to make sure this didn't happen,” she said. “Also, the lack of communication. This happened at 10 a.m. on Thursday, and it was after 6 before we were told to stop using the water. I know we drank that water all day.”

Although her husband has a good job at the local Napa Auto Parts store, she bristles at the “added expenses we are incurring, replacing the filter on the refrigerator (and) buying additional cases of water beyond what we would normally purchase.”

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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West Virginia
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