Thousands of East End homeowners were not only left without power after Irene swept across Long Island, they also had no water because they use private wells.

That meant living in the dark and having nothing to drink from the tap, no showers and no toilets.

Even Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell was without water for three days. "When you have no water, you only have one flush," he said, referring to toilet tanks that typically hold less than 3 gallons of water.

Town officials on the North and South Forks do not keep records of who uses private wells. But the Suffolk County Water Authority said about 40,000 homes in the county use private wells. Riverhead has its own public water system, which serves most of the town's 33,000 residents.

Many without water were in rural areas or live in houses on private roads. Generally, the further away from neighbors people are, the more likely they are to be using private wells.

Private wells use electric pumps to bring water up from below ground. There is no simple way to convert them to pump up the water by hand.

In Irene's aftermath, residents pitched in to help their waterless neighbors on a community-by-community basis. Some schools were opened for people to shower or use toilets; volunteer fire departments let residents get ice and store food and medicine in their refrigerators or freezers; and the Water Authority set up two water supply facilities in East Hampton village and Montauk.

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A half-dozen volunteer fire departments in Southold have been announcing over local radio stations that they are open to residents, and the public school in Orient made its shower facilities available daily between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Though lack of access to private wells wasn't a problem just on the East End, many towns in the area were hard-hit. One was Springs, a small hamlet in East Hampton.

"Losing power is bad enough, but it's not as bad as not having water," said Carol Saxe of Springs, who was still without either Thursday. "We bring buckets in from our pool to flush our toilet . . . you can't even wash your hands. Brushing your teeth is difficult . . . if you cut a piece of fruit with a knife, it's hard to wash off the sticky part."

Elsewhere, in Cutchogue, Russell said there were close to 4,000 homes without power, and three-quarters of them have private wells.

One of those without power was Rich Gladd, who showed up at the firehouse Wednesday afternoon with a carton filled with frozen, homemade tomato sauce that he wanted to refrigerate. "This is all stuff I made from scratch," he said. "I don't want to throw it out."

Bruce Bates, East Hampton's emergency services coordinator, said Wednesday that it wasn't possible to tell how many people with private wells were still without power, but said it was "a fair quantity of people -- maybe 40 percent."

With Jennifer Smith