Flood knocks out cell phone, 911, cable service in Arrowheadby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
TWO HARBORS, Minn. — The historic flooding in northeastern Minnesota damaged a fiber optic link that serves much of the Arrowhead region north of Duluth. The temporary outage included cell phones, internet, and even 911 service at a time when many were trying to reach loved ones and report damage to authorities.
Frustration over the outage was clear among some in the crowd that gathered at a bridge over the Knife River between Duluth and Two Harbors. Terri Stuberud, who lives across the bridge on the west side of the river, says that after the storm dumped close to 9 inches of rain on the region, she was unable to reach her husband and co-workers in Two Harbors north of the river.
"We couldn't get a hold of them cell phone, our internet was down at work, the computers were down, their phone lines were down. We were cut off," she said.
Officials with CenturyLink say a fiber optic cable that crosses the Knife River beneath a bridge on Highway 61 was damaged by high water and floating debris. The outage started at around 10 p.m. Tuesday and service wasn't restored until after midday Wednesday.
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Stuberud says without phone or internet service, she felt vulnerable.
"Anybody would be nervous. I couldn't get a hold of anybody. Thank God there wasn't an emergency," she said.
The loss of telecommunication services affected thousands of residents. Eight communities along the North Shore -- including Silver Bay and Grand Marais -- were without cell phone and 911 service. Local exchange phone service was available, but only on landlines.
Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson says he posted officers in each community in case they were needed, and he feels lucky there were no emergencies.
"It's one thing to live without being able to go on the internet or maybe not being able to use your cell phone, but when everything is down ... and not even being able to call 911, that's huge. That's something we've got to get fixed so that can't happen anymore," he said.
This isn't the first time the Arrowhead region has suffered a serious telecommunications outage. In 2010, residents along the North Shore were without critical communication services for about 12 hours after a fiber line was damaged in Duluth. That prompted local officials to look for answers.
Sheriff Johnson says Lake County is currently working to develop its own fiber optic network, so that a single damaged line won't cut off the entire region.
Both the outage two years ago and this latest one were hard on local commerce. Some bank services were down. And without the internet, people couldn't use credit or debit cards to make purchases.
At the Dairy Queen in Two Harbors, owner Seth McDonald says he felt like his business was in the dark for awhile. But McDonald says that's sometimes the price of living in a rural community.
"It was a little bit of an inconvenience, but I think most customers were understanding, and we understand the situation that they're in, and we just tried to be as positive about it as we can," he said.
Some amateur radio operators from Duluth and in the Arrowhead set up radio links to help relay emergency communications during the outage.