W.Va. Businesses Regroup After Tap Water Is Restored

The area around Charleston is slowly coming back to life after last week's chemical spill that contaminated the water supply. The ban on tap water has been lifted in downtown Charleston, which is good news to restaurants and other small businesses. But restaurants and laundromats in neighboring towns unaffected by the ban are serving long lines of customers in areas still without access to drinkable tap water.

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More than half of the customers affected by last week's chemical leak in West Virginia now have access to safe tap water. About 300,000 people were told not to drink, wash or cook with water after the spill tainted the water supply. For days, the ban on tap water crippled the local economy.

And as officials continue to lift the ban zone by zone, small businesses are showing signs of life once again. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING CRUSHED ICE)

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Ice cold drinks are back on the menu at Adelphia Sports Bar and Grille in downtown Charleston.

DENO STANLEY: Well, you know, we had to, of course, flush all the water and do deep cleans and change all our filters and have our soda lines cleaned out.

WANG: Deno Stanley owns the restaurant, which like many businesses in the region, were closed for days after the ban on tap water.

STANLEY: You have to have good food and atmosphere and service. But, you know, without water, we're, you know, up the creek without a paddle.

WANG: So now you're floating again.

STANLEY: We are floating again. We're back up to about 80 percent capacity.

WANG: The missing 20 percent required a final health department inspection. But that didn't keep away regulars like third-grade teacher Laura Eid.

LAURA EID: I'm still a little nervous to wash my hands, so I'm still using hand sanitizer. I'm still using bottled water.

WANG: But you're not too nervous to go to a restaurant, though.

EID: No, not too nervous. But they are using paper plates and plastic cups. So it makes me happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CASH REGISTER)

WANG: Just a couple doors down, instructors at the Charleston School of Beauty Culture were happy to hear the cash register ringing again, after customers began returning for haircuts. But another sound has been even sweeter music to barber instructor Gene Nelson's ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

GENE NELSON: Because just about everything we do, we're dealing with water. Every person you touch, you're in contact with something, so they have to be able to wash their hands in between each client.

JORDAN SHEETS: Yeah, I have an interview at State Farm today.

NELSON: Oh, really?

SHEETS: Yeah.

WANG: Jordan Sheets took a seat in the barber chair, after desperately calling to find an open barbershop before his job interview.

SHEETS: I just had to get this length off so I could look presentable when I go in.

WANG: Looking presentable has been a challenge at home, where Sheets' family had been living days without safe tap water.

SHEETS: Had to drive to a truck stop - $13 a shower.

WANG: Sheets eventually found free showers at St. Francis Church in a small town nearby, St. Albans, where the water supply has been fine. And business these past few days has been even better.

(SOUNDBITE OF COINS)

WANG: The coin-operated washing and drying machines at St. Albans Cleaners have been running almost non-stop since the chemical spill.

A lot more quarters in those machines.

NANCY ROBINSON: A lot more quarters to gather, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: A lot more 20s to change.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: Nancy Robinson, who works at this Laundromat, says lines have formed out the door with customers from neighboring towns with tainted tap water.

ROBINSON: I'm not getting much time to do anything. I can't even get to my chiropractic appointments.

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: It's also been busy for Mike Messinger, owner of Dwight's Restaurant.

MIKE MESSINGER: I haven't been able to go outside and look around. I've stayed in my restaurant pretty much every waking moment.

MARY HENDRICKS: And I'll bring you some hot coffee right back, OK? You enjoy your meal.

WANG: Waitress Mary Hendricks has two words to describe business these past few days at the 24-hour restaurant...

HENDRICKS: Extremely crazy...

(LAUGHTER)

HENDRICKS: ...but blessed. I've been blessed at home with water, and blessed that my employment has water.

WANG: And blessed with a seemingly endless run of customers.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Charleston, West Virginia.

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