Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

August 21, 2013

A tale of two elementary schools, and an urgent need for clean drinking water

— Long-dormant childhood memories have been awakened by images of a large-scale pile of debris. That’s all that remains of the old Anawalt Elementary School, a historic but timeworn structure that was recently demolished by the McDowell County Board of Education. Most of the rubble has since been removed as school is now back in session.

But photographs of the debris left behind from the demolition have been making their way across Facebook in recent weeks. It’s always sad to see an old school closed. And once a school is demolished, all that remains are cherished memories. And like all things we lose in life, those memories do live on with us.

As many long-time readers know, I attended school in Anawalt, and later Welch. I played little league at the old school, got my first set of stitches after falling on the concrete playground during a game of soccer — busting my leg up well enough to require a trip to Welch Emergency Hospital — and even enjoyed a short-lived stint as a drummer for the old elementary school band.

The school was first constructed, and opened for students, in the early 1920s. At the time of its closure in 2012, it was one of the oldest schools in McDowell County. The closure was ordered by the state fire marshal for health and safety reasons. But students weren’t forced to travel far from home to continue their studies. In fact, students in Anawalt are currently attending school in a state-of-the-art modular building located on the lower parking lot area of the school grounds — the same place where I busted up my knee so many years ago. A larger playground area is planned for the school at the site of where the old structure once stood.

While a new generation of students won’t have memories of walking up and down those old elementary school stairs, they will still proudly call themselves Anawalt Comets.

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More than quite a few miles down the road, work still remains stalled on the new Iaeger Elementary School project in McDowell County. Site work began last December on the new school, but that construction was later stalled after there was a question about a permit. School officials are working to develop new drawings and permits that will be submitted to FEMA for approval, according to School Superintendent Nelson Spencer.

The hope is that once the new permits are approved, work can resume on the multi-million dollar elementary school project. The Iaeger school is the last of the projects to be constructed as part of a decade-old flood proofing agreement in McDowell County launched in conjunction with the state Board of Education, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state School Building Authority. The plan was originally developed under the guidance of former state-appointed school superintendent Dr. Mark Manchin, who now serves as the executive director of the state School Building Authority.

It is imperative for construction to continue on this new elementary school.

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We get a lot of calls and emails in the newsroom about water problems in McDowell County. I can understand the frustration. We had a lot of water outages growing up in McDowell County as well. But the good news is that help is on they way. Still it will take time before the multi-phase Elkhorn Water Project can help all of the communities in need.

The new project will replace water lines along U.S. Route 52 that date back to the 1930s.

The McDowell County Public Service District is hoping to go out to bid this fall on the first phase of the Elkhorn Water Project. The $8 million project also involves the construction of a new 400,000 gallon water storage tank on Elkhorn Mountain and a new water treatment plant. The first phase of the project will serve approximately 252 customers. The new water system will be equipped with generators to ensure that water continues to flow even during power outages.

When all four phases of the project are completed at some point in the future, county water will then be extended all the way from Maybeury to Kimball along Route 52. And that includes the towns of Northfork and Keystone, which are currently in the phase two service area. But until phase two of the project begins, the water lines in the towns of Northfork and Keystone will continue to be operated by their respective municipalities. And until that time the wait for clean and reliable drinking water will continue for many families in McDowell County.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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