WHITESBURG — Men shaved using bottled water, and mothers took their children to the homes of relatives with wells to give them baths. The popular Pine Mountain Grill served lunch from paper plates, and a steady stream of Letcher County residents picked up free gallon jugs of water at distribution points.
Such is life when you can't turn on the tap and fill a glass or take a shower.
It's a reality thousands of Letcher County residents have been dealing with since Monday.
That's when state inspectors verified an oily odor in water at the city treatment plant and issued an advisory against using the water for drinking, bathing or cooking.
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It was still OK to flush toilets with the water, but that was about it.
"It's aggravating, buddy," said Oliver Hampton, 62, as he picked up three gallon jugs of water at the county road garage. "It's a pain in the behind."
Inspectors found damaged, leaking fuel storage tanks at a site on the North Fork of the Kentucky River 4 miles upstream from the Whitesburg water plant, the state Division of Water confirmed Tuesday.
The river is the city's water source.
Don Childers, the owner of Childers Oil Inc. in Whitesburg, which owns dozens of gas stations, acknowledged owning the tanks at the site where the leak is thought to have originated, said Allison Fleck, spokeswoman for the Division of Water.
Childers did not return a phone call Tuesday.
Childers was cited last year after oil seeped from his property at another location and into the North Fork upstream from the Whitesburg water plant. That leak forced a weeklong advisory in November against using the water.
That citation has not been resolved because of an ongoing criminal investigation into the November leak, Fleck said.
The state anticipates issuing a notice of violation Wednesday related to the latest leak, she said.
Letcher County Judge-Executive Jim Ward said Tuesday that workers had contained the leaking fuel with booms in the river.
It's not certain when residents will start getting water again from the city water system.
Test results necessary to clear the water plant to resume operation won't be available until Wednesday evening, Ward said.
And after that, workers will have to flush lines throughout the system, said Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft.
The water outage did not affect the entire county, only customers of the Whitesburg system. Paul Miles, the county's emergency manager, said that includes about 3,000 households.
Some people are fuming because of the repeat contamination of the water.
"Everybody's mad. They get tired of it," said Jerry Eversole, an emergency medical technician with Letcher Fire and Rescue at Jeremiah, one of the distribution points for free water.
Some people said the situation wasn't as bad as last year because restaurants remained open, using portable water and hand sanitizer in bathrooms.
Still, not having ready access to tap water in much of the county was a big inconvenience.
"You take it for granted to be able to turn on that water and wash your hands," said Connie Sturgill of Dry Fork, who took her daughters, ages 9 and 11, to her father's house for baths because he has a well.
Talana Jackson, 41, of Jeremiah said she missed coffee and not being able to take a shower.
"You feel so dirty," she said. And "It's horrible getting up without coffee in the morning."
James A. Craft, of Whitesburg, agreed that having no water service is inconvenient, but he had retained his sense of humor about it. Asked whether he had been able to shower Tuesday, he said, "If you stand close enough, you'll know that I haven't."
Hospitals, schools affected
Eversole said that, beginning Wednesday, ambulance services and family members in the county will have to start taking dialysis patients about two hours away for treatment in Paintsville because of the water problem.
That's a hardship and an extra expense, he said.
Leah Robinson said the lack of water service had hurt business at her hair salon and day spa because there was no warm water to wash customers' hair.
"We'll do what we can with bottled water," she said as she picked up water at Whitesburg City Hall.
Two day-care centers and a Montessori school closed because of the water problem, so parents had to take off work or make other arrangements for their children's care.
Public schools remained open Tuesday with bottled water, however, and there was plenty of water for fire protection, officials said.
Ward said the county had delivered large water storage tanks to the Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital, a nursing home and another treatment center.
The county also had set up four distribution points for free water, and the city had set up a center at the fire station at City Hall.
Childers and Wal-Mart donated much of the water, Ward said.