Late on January 9 not much was known about the chemical leak into the Elk River. No one seemed to know how much of the chemical had poured into the river or been sucked into the water system. No one could be sure what sort of health-risks might arise from skin contact or ingesting water tainted with the obscure chemical. There was uncertainty about when the contamination had begun and how long it might take to remove the contamination. When 300,000 people might again be able to consume their tap water was beyond reasonable prediction.
Our species survived — and eventually thrived — largely based on our weird ability to imagine the future and recognize steps to achieve (or avoid) what we imagine. When this imagination is anchored in experience or knowledge (indirect-experience) it is a source of confidence, even solace. When the anchor is ripped up and our fragile craft is swept into a cyclone of uncertainty… well, different folks respond in different ways. But there is a tendency for fear to proliferate, which can unwind in atypical behaviors and amplify uncertainty.
In the first two days of the West Virginia water crisis there were many indicators of imagination untethered. Rumors spread. Conspiracies were alleged. Even worse to come was envisioned. But mostly fears were contained, rumors corrected, and a covenant of social trust and mutual concern was, if anything, strengthened.
A 500 word blog — okay, I’m not always so concise — is not the right place to undertake a full analysis of what happened and did not happen in terms of community resilience. But I advocate this being done.
My hypothesis is that what happened mostly involved the expression of preexisting social networks and relationships.
But I also want to credit — and ask others to more rigorously explore — the role of leadership that was courageous enough to embrace uncertainty.
I was in eastern West Virginia (outside the impact area) from Sunday through Tuesday, close enough to get a bit more of the local media angle. I was impressed by the calm, realistic, and consistently understated approach of the Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, and the President of West Virginia American Water, Jeff McIntyre.
I never heard them claim to be in control. I did hear them state clearly the sources of uncertainty. They outlined in writing and in their remarks what was being done to engage the uncertainty. They did not try to distract citizens from the uncertainty with accusatory vents. They did focus on what citizens could do for themselves and their neighbors. They recognized progress. They did not over-promise.
Here is one of the first statements made by the Governor (bold highlights by me).
We urge all residents in the affected areas to follow West Virginia American Water Company’s “do not use” order until it is lifted. This includes water companies supplied by West Virginia American Water in this area. If you live in one of these areas, do not use tap water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, or bathing. At this time, I do not know how long this will last.
Don’t neglect the use of that personal pronoun. Next he said:
We ask that all West Virginian’s check on their friends, families, and neighbors—especially those with small children and seniors living in their households—to make sure they have enough water, food, and supplies. If you—or anyone you know–experiences symptoms including: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, irritation of the eyes and skin, seek care immediately.
Here’s what a citizen can do, even should do. The most important action that can be taken is to practically and personally renew the human relationships on which we all depend. Begin some new relationships if you can. Then, here’s what your government is doing on your behalf (he said more, this is one of four paragraphs):
I’ve mobilized and deployed all appropriate government assets and resources, including our Office of Emergency Management, our experts at DEP, DHHR Bureau of Public Health along with our National Guard—who are out doing health and wellness checks across the area along with collecting, testing and monitoring the water. The federal government is also providing assistance. The President has approved my request to issue a federal emergency declaration to provide FEMA resources. County emergency offices are also working 24-7.
Your basic human needs can and will be addressed:
If you are low on bottled water, do not panic. Help is on the way. We are taking every measure to provide water to you. There is no shortage of bottled water. Supplies are moving into the area as we speak. We encourage all West Virginians in affected areas to contact their local emergency management office for water distribution sites.
Please be active in helping yourself and others:
If you or your organization would like to donate supplies, please contact your local emergency center. If you are in the Kanawha Valley Area, we are organizing a call to action drive for needed items—including water, sanitizer, wipes, liquid baby formula, paper plates, plastic utensils, and microwavable meals. The drive will take place on the Boulevard in front of the State Capitol from 2:30 – 6:30 today. It is important to emphasize, water and supplies are available—there is not a persistent shortage of bottled water.
We are grateful for the offers of support from private firms and charities—and our fellow West Virginians—to aid in providing relief.
This is the second time I have listened-in to Governor Tomblin deal with a basically no-notice and hard-hitting disaster. The first time was the late-June 2012 Derecho. In that multi-state event I was able to compare and contrast his approach to that of other governors, mayors, and such. When others were attacking, blaming, and threatening, Governor Tomlin was thanking and encouraging and informing.
I think there are some lessons to be learned.