Business dries up under ‘Do not use' water order - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Business dries up under ‘Do not use' water order

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Christina Fan / WOWK-TV Christina Fan / WOWK-TV
Jim Workman / The State Journal. Burns Chevrolet in Rock Hill, S.C., contacted Joe Holland Chevrolet in South Charleston to donate several pallets of bottled water. Jim Workman / The State Journal. Burns Chevrolet in Rock Hill, S.C., contacted Joe Holland Chevrolet in South Charleston to donate several pallets of bottled water.

By The State Journal Staff 

The Jan. 9 chemical spill that caused a ban on water use in parts of nine West Virginia counties impacted homes throughout the southern part of the state as well as the commercial customers that depend on West Virginia American Water.

Employers and their employees also were left to deal with many closed businesses. Inconveniences due to lack of water were common, but some also dealt with temporary loss of employment due to the forced shuttering of hundreds of businesses.  

Karen Bowling, cabinet secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, spent much of her time since the chemical spill addressing the media in many organized briefings along with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other government officials.

As the process for flushing in the affected areas got closer to implementation, she offered information for business owners.

"The flushing and cleansing procedures are the same for businesses as houses," she said. "They're the same, as far as getting up and in operation that's required by county health departments, ensuring safety and permits of establishments that serve food."

A few businesses began opening their doors to customers Monday, Jan. 13.

"Some businesses are receiving temporary permits," Bowling said. "If those businesses have questions, they need to contact local county health departments because they will have to continue to use those until their flushing process is over.

 "The things that are more important for businesses: running dishes, emptying ice, running another cycle of ice — they need to pay close attention to these things. We want our businesses to be back open for business, for the sake of the state.'

Too early for analysis

West Virginia University's John Deskins said they're still a "long way" from having a true fix on the economic impact of the water crisis, though he's optimistic the long-term fall-out will be minimal.

Deskins, director of WVU's Bureau of Business & Economic Research, said with water service already being restored to customers in the region, "there's reason to believe the overall economic impact may be less significant than some might have feared."

"It's really hard to know how much is being affected," he said. "And some of it may actually just be shifting from last week to this week — people who were going to go out last Saturday, for instance, might decide to go out this Saturday instead. Or it might be shifting from the center of the affected region to an outlying region — St. Albans, for instance."

He said he'd discussed the economic fallout with state officials earlier in the week and the consensus was that as bad as the situation was, it could have been much worse.

"We are fortunate," he added. "I know people have been very uncomfortable, but fortunately for everybody it only lasted a (few) days. That's a good thing. I don't foresee much of a lasting economic impact, at least from the water shutdown."

The crisis, however, could lead to more stringent regulatory requirements, and that could prove costly to the industry, Deskins said.

"When accidents like this occur there's a lot of push to impose more stringent safety requirements to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said. "But without knowing what might be required, it's hard to put a dollar value on what that impact might be. If they do impose more regulatory requirements, it may affect that industry in the long-term."

Retailers respond to impact

Bridget Lambert, president of the West Virginia Retailers Association, said while businesses have certainly been impacted, the scope most likely will not be seen until after the fact. 

"While many (businesses) remain closed, the few that have been able to reopen is a positive step," Lambert said. "To help more businesses open their doors once again, several groups and organizations have come together to make that happen."

When it comes to businesses reopening, Lambert said, "we're working together to reopen in a timely manner."

Although Lambert said residents are "anxiously waiting" to resume normalcy, she added that the current crisis has been a visual tribute to the people of West Virginia coming together.

Both barren and booming

On a normal day, customers line up to get tires installed or oil changes, among many other services offered at Eddie's Tire Pros ExpressCare locations in Winfield and Poca.

But when the chemical leak affected the area's water supplies, the flow of cars came to a screeching halt.

"It's been a pretty big blow to us," said Eddie's partner, Jarrett Smith. "It's been about a 10-to-1 take."

Although water isn't critical to the operations there and Eddie's has remained open, business is down significantly.

"People are trying to take care of their families, and aren't thinking about getting their cars worked on," Smith surmised. "We're fully open, but our phones aren't even ringing. 

"December was probably our best month, but so far, January is one of the worst."

When Fireside Grille restaurant opened in Hurricane three years ago, it enjoyed a massive opening week with hundreds of hungry patrons eager to try the new fare of the locally owned establishment.

That's to be expected. But what happened the weekend of Jan. 10 through 12 left the Putnam County eatery unprepared — but happy.

"It's been a neat adventure," said chef Jeff Barr. "We're on Putnam Public Service District water, so we weren't affected (by the chemical spill). 

"There's no way we could have prepared for this kind of catastrophe."

Because it was able to stay open, folks from the affected areas seeking an open restaurant found Fireside Grille — many for the first time. 

Fireside Grille broke its opening week records every day during the weekend, despite many of his staff members affected at their homes too.

Barr said Fireside Grille offered to fill water bottles for customers who live in the affected areas as well.

Because the restaurant stayed packed for several days in a row, supplies were stretched to their limits.

"Our food supplier bent over backwards to help us," Barr said. "They loaded a truck for us over the weekend and got it to us first thing Monday (Jan. 13) morning, so we were ready to go."

Water work-around

The offices of Warnick and Semder Dentistry saw both sides of the impact of the chemical spill.

The St. Albans location is not a West Virginia American Water customer, instead drawing from the St. Albans Public Service District supply. Its Winfield location is on WVAW but suffered only a day of precautionary closure and several cancelled appointments. 

Water wasn't as much as an issue as it could have been, however, because both of its offices use only distilled water in patient treatment areas.

"We closed our Winfield office on Jan. 13 because we wanted to make sure we needed a permit through the health department," explained Dr. Steve Warnick. "We did not, so it was our decision to open starting Jan. 14." 

The sterilization and sanitization of equipment is achieved through a combination of steam treatment (using distilled water) and alcohol/non-alcohol sprays and wipes, the company said.

The St. Albans office offered patients the ability to fill water bottles at its location.

"A lot of our patients have cancelled appointments because they're nervous about their water issues," Warnick said. "It's had an impact on our schedules." 

Jackson County crush

Business was hectic, but restaurateur Sharon Lanham said the circumstances were bad.

Lanham is the owner of Your Family Restaurant situated near the Kenna interchange of Interstate 77, 10 miles north of the Kanawha County line. Water contamination problems in the Charleston area resulted in brisk business at the Jackson County restaurant.

"Business was good, but I felt sorry for everybody," Lanham said. "Normally, we'll have a break in business for a couple of hours, but we didn't on this weekend."

It was also a busy weekend at Fratello's Italian Steakhouse at Fairplain, according to Manager Eric Harlan. He said some customers from the Kanawha Valley expressed their frustration to the point of being "at wit's end." 

"I talked with some people who were affected by the water situation," he said. "They said they would hear one report and then hear something different. They were wondering when they could use the water again."

McCoy's Inn & Conference Center at Ripley received several weekend calls inquiring about room availability.

"We had a lot of calls, but not a lot of actual check-ins," said Manager Beth Riddle. "We had a few people come in and get rooms and one lady who came over and used our guest laundry."

The water ban affected Kroger stores in the Kanawha Valley in ways that were expected — sales of bottled water increased — but in other ways the store managers didn't expect, Kroger spokesman Carl York said.

For one, stores could not spray mist on their produce, he said. They also weren't allowed to operate their delis and other departments that use water.

York added that Kroger donated six truckloads of water and distributed it at various locations in the Charleston area.

Fewer than 10 Jackson County families are customers of West Virginia American Water. A line extends into a small section of Middle Fork, near Goldtown, County Emergency Medical Services Director Walter Smittle said, and Jackson was included in the nine-county affected area basically for federal reimbursement purposes.

Penn station saw it all

Roger Kirkland and his wife Marilyn own five Penn Station locations  with two outside the affected water ban zones. Stores in St. Albans and Scott Depot remained open.

As of Jan. 14, the Kirkland's were still waiting for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to show up in their restaurants to give them the green light.

"They're overwhelmed, I'm sure," Roger Kirkland said. "It's impossible for them to prepare for something like this."

Penn Station took care of its managers and crew by purchasing cases of water so they would have supplies for their homes.

"We lost about 60 percent of our income and we still had debt services and salaries to pay — it's not fun," Kirkland said. "But we're depending on God to provide for us."