On November 5, 2013, residents and visitors on San Juan Island wake up to discover that their cell phones, telephone landlines, and internet services are all not working. Investigations eventually reveal that the underwater fiber cable bringing communications connections to the island, located between the Northwest Washington mainland and Vancouver Island, has been severed, and it may take weeks to be repaired. Hoping that the San Juan Island Library (a community resource broadly recognized for its wide-ranging assistance and services) might still have an internet connection, an anxious public gathers at the library's doors. For the next 10 days library staff members are ceaselessly busy assisting with special needs, increasing the library's capacity for communications, and making every accommodation possible to aid the users crowding the building from opening until closing; many at the library or arriving late in the day linger in the parking lot into the night. When the crisis passes, the local Chamber of Commerce presents the San Juan Island Library with a "True Grit" award for its efforts to keep islanders connected through this challenging time.
Living on an island presents special challenges at the best of times. Residents of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, have been familiar from the first days of settlement with the need for unusual self-sufficiency and cooperative action when problems occur. Friday Harbor, the only town on San Juan Island and the county seat of San Juan County, had a population of approximately 2,200 in 2013, with perhaps another 4,500 residents scattered in a rural setting across the rest of the island. Everyone living on the island had experienced numerous power outages over the years, sometimes as the result of storms and sometimes the result of human activity, often on the mainland from which the power grid extends out to San Juan County. But the situation that faced islanders when they woke up that morning of November 5, 2013, was unprecedented -- no landline service, no cell phone service, and no internet connection.
Annoyed but not immediately alarmed, islanders waited through breakfast for service to be restored, but when the outage extended into the morning, people began to look for explanations and assurances that the problems were going to be promptly fixed. Residents from around the island converged on town. Friday Harbor was flooded with rumors as to the cause of the outages, but no firm information was immediately available. Meanwhile, many services in town came to a halt. Banks remained closed because there could be no electronic transactions. Many businesses could not carry on credit-card processing and were not prepared to operate on a cash-only basis. People needing to go off the island or meeting travelers coming from the mainland could not access the state ferries website to check on schedules and status. Pharmacies could not receive faxed or emailed prescriptions from off-island. Airline and other reservations could not be made or tickets purchased. Telecommuting was impossible. Social media could not be accessed. Far more concerning was the fact that the 911 and medical alert systems on which many residents relied were no longer operational. And, what most islanders did not yet know was that those on the mainland trying to make a telephone call to the island simply received a message saying that the number being dialed was no longer in service. Family members calling to check on the welfare of loved ones or individuals calling to conduct business on the island were left wondering anxiously what was happening.
Investigations were immediately begun to determine the source and extent of the problem. Initially it was thought that perhaps the underwater fiber cable that brought communications services to the islands had been damaged. International experts who had initially helped install the cable to the islands were brought in to help pinpoint the problem. Specialists from across the state prepared to repair the cable, which was miles long and at an underwater depth in many areas of considerably more than 200 feet. CenturyLink, which owned the cable, brought in a team of expert divers, three tugboats, two remote operating vessels, and two barges equipped with cranes and splicing equipment. The local utility cooperative, OPALCO, had developed a "robust data communication infrastructure installed across the county to serve the electrical distribution system and [made] those resources available to aid its fellow utility" ("Telephone Outage ...").
Unfortunately, when the source of the problem was identified by a robotic underwater camera that had been searching the cable inch by inch, the situation was found to be worse than originally thought; the cable had been completely severed and was suspended along a rock face between Lopez and San Juan islands, a good distance south of where it had originally been located. The reason for the displacement was never determined, but it may have been the result of a small earthquake that had occurred just three minutes before the first alarm notification of the cable failure. Making the repairs was going to involve bringing in thousands of feet of new cable (not a resource readily available) and numerous hours of expert splicing. The timetable for completing repairs and a return to operation was not optimistic, with estimates as long as several weeks to a month or more. With the outage affecting all of the San Juan Islands, the San Juan County Council declared a state of emergency across the county.
Turning to the Library
Fortunately, a few islanders had satellite internet service, and soon neighbors were helping neighbors in best island fashion. In Friday Harbor some businesses received their internet through OPALCO's fiber-optic network rather than CenturyLink's, and many of them offered the community free Wi-Fi access throughout the outage. But it was the San Juan Island Library (also using the OPALCO network) that became the focal point for communications access and assistance. Even before the doors opened on that first morning, the parking lot was full, with hopeful people clutching laptops waiting for admittance. It was immediately clear that whatever was on the schedule for the day was going to be scrapped so that staff members could focus their attention on making sure that everyone received the help needed to get connected.
Workspaces quickly filled up, and staff scoured the building for every possible extra table and chair. Even with additional accommodations, some people were resigned to sitting on the floor with their laptops. Extra power strips were installed. The technology specialist was in constant demand for assistance and was able to get the library's bandwidth doubled to cope with the high-volume usage. Many borrowed the library's "laptops and Bluetooth technology to Skype for business communications, banking, and other essential economic activities" (Orton, "From ..."). Although some who came to the library simply needed connectivity and a place to work, others had a variety of personal communication problems. One elderly woman, for example, habitually called her off-island son each day to let him know that all was well, and she knew that he would be extremely concerned when he did not hear from her and could not contact her himself. The librarian assisting her was able to devise a workaround, connecting to a friend off the island who could call the son with reassurance.
By the second day word had spread that the library was the place to get help and get connected. Again residents were lined up at the door before opening time. "As the chairs and tables quickly filled, it started to feel like a neighborhood social -- greetings, catching up, asking others if they needed help, and speculation about what had happened. We heard many comments such as, 'the party's at the library!' and 'the library is the hub of the community today,' and '[the library is] the best ticket in town,'" the Library Director recalled (Orton, "Your Community ..."). And individual needs multiplied. One patron had to make payroll for his employees, several had shipping labels that needed to be printed, others needed boarding passes printed. Babysitters needed to be contacted, rides needed to be arranged. At one point two patrons in the parking lot were using Skype at the same time, one in a car and one using the same car's rooftop as a desk. And the activity did not stop when the library closed in the evening. Late into the night the parking lot was filled with cars, "the eerie glow of mobile-device screens illuminating the occupants" who were taking advantage of the Wi-Fi that had been left on for their use (Hall).
The outage had occurred on Tuesday, November 5. By Friday, 911 service had been partially restored. One of the San Juan County Council members suggested that, "if you want a rustic getaway where you can feel sealed off from the mainland, this is a good weekend to do it" (Bishop). Every morning "at the San Juan Library ... people showed up in droves and lined up outside the door to try to connect. It was like 'some post-apocalyptic scene of people standing around with laptops, hungry for internets,' one person who was there [commented] after returning [to the mainland] from the San Juans and rejoining the connected world" (Bishop). Throughout the outage, the library staff responded to a seemingly unending number of requests for assistance, and the level of service never flagged. And the community was extremely grateful. Wrote one patron to a local online newspaper when communications had been restored, "Many of us on the island were already aware that we had a fabulous resource in the San Juan library -- a welcoming facility, quality resources, interesting programs and a helpful staff. But some of us had never taken advantage of the library's online capabilities -- until last week when our usual sources failed us and the library became a refuge. Its computers, laptops, and Internet capabilities were a godsend to islanders. Thank goodness for the library and its Friend[s] of the Library supporters" (Otley).
San Juan Island was finally reconnected with the world on November 15 when fiber repairs were completed. It had taken two dozen CenturyLink employees and three dozen contractors (engineers, divers, technicians, and marine specialists) working around the clock for up to nine days to have the system up and fully operational for the people of San Juan County, an intensive $2 million response. Concerns about the lack of contingency plans and backup systems for this vital communications link eventually led the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission to impose a penalty on CenturyLink of $173,210 for what it called "inadequacies" in its response to the outage, and settlements and other related expenses were also anticipated ("CenturyLink Penalized ..."). Islanders were just relieved to be able to communicate once again.
The library had provided remarkable service throughout the outage, and the community recognized just how important its assistance had been for so many islanders. The local Chamber of Commerce acknowledged the library's accomplishments, presenting to the staff a "True Grit" award for "working diligently to overcome a community challenge" (Orton, "Your ..."). And as the library returned to more normal services and programming, one staff member, echoing the thoughts of many, noted on the Tumblr website, "the library has been pleased as punch to be able to step in and help out! And to be part of the fabric of this great community where the first response is to help our neighbors" ("San Juan Island").