How Have 300,000 West Virginians Made Do Without Running Water?

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What would you do if your access to safe running water was suddenly cut off? There are ways to make the experience more bearable.

After two days without a shower, I really can’t stand myself. So imagine how 300,000 West Virginians feel. People in nine counties have been without running water to drink, bathe in, cook with or do the laundry since Friday. The only thing they can use the water for is to flush the commode – oh, and put out a fire.

As we speak, water service is gradually being restored as the chemical that leaked into it is being flushed out of the pipes.

We won’t ask why 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a coal-cleaning chemical known as crude MCHM, was kept in an aging and deteriorating storage facility near a river about a mile above the intake for a major water treatment plant. (So little is known about the chemical that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention couldn’t even explain “how much of this chemical in water is safe to drink,” NPR said.)

But we have to wonder how people have gotten by since their water supply was contaminated by the 7,500-gallon leak.

West Virginians are resourceful people who place a high value on common sense. We read about how they coped and are passing that on, along with some other tips we found, should this type of disaster ever happen to you.

General tips

  • Bottled water. This one is obvious, of course, but not hassle-free. People shopped for it until the stores – some of which rationed their supply — ran out. Then authorities like the National Guard set up centers to distribute potable water in bottles and in bulk.
  • Leave town. This is not as unlikely a solution as you may think. Many businesses and schools shut down, so it’s possible that you could pack up the car and head out of town for a while.
  • Use a well. It’s not unheard of for older homes in rural areas to have their own water supply.

Personal hygiene

  • Dry shampoo. It works once you get the hang of it, says this article.
  • A no-water bath. In this TED talk, Ludwick Marishane describes his invention of DryBath, a cleansing lotion that doesn’t require water. You can find other products like this.
  • Sponge bath. A little bit of bottled water is needed here.
  • Spray bottle wash. This post describes how to do it.
  • Baby wipes. A friend of mine who had ankle surgery used these in place of a bath for a while.
  • Rainwater. One woman washed her hair under a leaky gutter when it rained and then used her wet pajamas inside to give herself a “horse bath,” says USA Today. Or you can fill clean containers with rainwater and use it to wash.
  • Hand sanitizer. It goes without saying when you need to use this stuff.
  • Avoid shaking hands. Health officials are worried about a spread of flu because people have been unable to wash their hands regularly.

Food prep

  • Eat processed foods. Going out to eat wasn’t an option in the first few days because many restaurants were shut down. Suddenly microwaveable dinners looked mighty appealing. Or you could heat up a cup of soup.
  • Use paper plates and plastic utensils. Wasteful, but you really have no alternative. No sense using that pricey bottled water to wash a plate.

Finally, don’t wait for the warning. News accounts are full of quotes from people who said they drank or bathed in the water — even though it smelled of licorice — just before they learned about the spill on TV news. If your tap water has a sudden change in color or smell, stop using it until you can confirm that it’s still safe.

Do you have any tips to share about how to make life bearable without running water? Share them below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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