After four days with hardly any cellphone or landline service, the San Juan County Council declared the outage a state of emergency Friday afternoon.
“People have been coping with the inconveniences, but it is affecting essential services,” said council member Rick Hughes, according to a county news release.
The “catastrophic failure” of an underwater CenturyLink fiber-optic cable that connects the San Juan Islands to the mainland occurred at 3:58 a.m. Tuesday, interrupting other services that depend on Internet and phone connections, according to the county.
The outage initially knocked out 911 emergency response lines, too, but that service was restored Thursday afternoon, according to a San Juan County release. Still, residents are being encouraged to use landline phones to call 911 because of unpredictable cellphone service.
According to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, there had been reports that cellphone calls to the mainland from Orcas and Lopez islands were completed using Verizon cellphones, but the cable break has put most towers for all cellphone providers out of service. The reduction in available cellphone towers has caused some overloads of the Mount Constitution tower.
The Sheriff’s Office said although most Internet service still works on Lopez and Orcas islands, service on San Juan Island is more spotty.
The outage has already hit the area’s economy hard: Some banks have had to close or restrict transactions because data lines cannot connect to the mainland, and businesses that rely on tourism have been unable to accept new reservations. Credit-card transactions have also been difficult to process and have forced many businesses to accept only cash for services and retail.
“It is hoped that the declaration will enable public agencies to recover extraordinary costs incurred due to the outage and qualify local businesses for assistance,” said county spokesman Stan Matthews.
Hotels, shops and restaurants are still open and hoping the outage hasn’t scared off everyone who was thinking about visiting the San Juan Islands this weekend.
“It’s not like Armageddon,” said Brendan Cowan, director of the San Juan County Department of Emergency Management. “We’re just disconnected — which, for some people, could be a great thing.”
The county release noted that CenturyLink was doing everything it could to fix the cable break as soon as possible, and may be able to restore some limited service to the mainland sometime in the next two days. CenturyLink, however, does not have a firm estimate of when service will be completely restored.