Lexington Red Cross volunteer Germaine O'Connell has worked her share of disasters — including hurricanes Sandy and Katrina — but the West Virginia water contamination crisis is unlike anything she's seen.
"It's different because there are no wrecked houses or businesses, and people are still in their homes," O'Connell said Sunday. "But there's no water. People here can't use tap water for anything other than flushing toilets."
There has been little potable water available anywhere in nine counties around Charleston, W.Va., since late Thursday, when a chemical solvent leaked into the area's water supply. More than 300,000 residents are affected. They have been warned that tap water isn't safe for drinking, washing hands, cooking or brushing teeth.
O'Connell and Roger Wright, another Red Cross volunteer from Lexington, have been trying to help, working with an army of other volunteers to distribute cases of bottled water to try to meet people's needs.
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Wright and O'Connell worked 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shifts in Putnam County, W.Va, on Saturday and Sunday. They expected to return home Sunday night after two more volunteers from the Lexington Red Cross arrived to relieve them. Relief will be welcome, they said.
"I personally have not had a shower in three days," O'Connell said during a cellphone interview Sunday afternoon from a parking lot in Eleanor, W.Va, where she and Wright were passing out water.
Wright said people in Eleanor drove to the lot throughout the day Sunday, waiting in line to stock up on bottled water from a tractor-trailer rig. He said he and O'Connell were equally busy Saturday, when they distributed water at Buffalo, another town in Putnam County.
Water distribution points have been set up in various locations affected by the water crisis.
"I think people are making out as best they can," Wright said Sunday. "Churches, YMCAs and other places in areas not affected by the water problem have been opening up for people to take showers."
O'Connell said those she had talked with seemed to be keeping their spirits up.
"They all say, 'thank you,' when they come to pick up water; everyone is very appreciative," she said. "I know it has to be difficult. They're all curious as to when this might end, but there is no official word yet."
The Lexington Red Cross sent Wright and O'Connell to West Virginia on Friday, driving an emergency response vehicle. The large van can handle various tasks, including serving meals and distributing water and relief supplies.
Wright, a lawyer with the Lexington-Urban County Government, and McConnell, director of the Kentucky Independent Living Council at the University of Kentucky, said they distributed more than 250 cases of bottled water Saturday, and might equal that by the time they finished on Sunday.
O'Connell said she worried about area folks who work in restaurants that can't open because of the water problem. They've been out of work four days, she said.
"I've heard several people say that they didn't realize how often they wash their hands until they couldn't wash them anymore," O'Connell added. "It's kind of eye-opening."
Wright said he was happy to be helping out.
"The best part of these volunteer assignments is that you meet interesting people and see places you might miss otherwise," he said. "I think most people who volunteer realize that they get a lot more out of it than they put in."