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After four days with hardly any cellphone or landline phone service for about 16,000 people, the San Juan County Council declared the outage a state of emergency Friday.

The “catastrophic failure” of an underwater CenturyLink fiber-optic cable that links the San Juans to the mainland began at 3:58 a.m. Tuesday, also interrupting other services that depend on the Internet and phones, the county said.

The outage initially knocked out 911 emergency-response lines too, but that service was restored Thursday afternoon. Still, residents are being encouraged to use landlines to call 911 because of unpredictable cellphone service.

The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office said the cable break has put most cellphone towers in the county out of service. County Councilman Rick Hughes said AT&T and Verizon have helped set up temporary towers to increase coverage.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Although most Internet service works on Lopez and Orcas islands, service on San Juan Island is more spotty, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Hotels, shops and restaurants are still open and hoping the outage hasn’t scared off people thinking about visiting this weekend. Those who’ve had trouble calling island businesses might try contacting them online, said Brendan Cowan, director of the County Department of Emergency Management.

“It’s not like Armageddon,” Cowan said. “We’re just disconnected — which, for some people, could be a great thing.”

The outage has already hit the area’s economy hard, though: Some banks have had to close or restrict transactions because data lines cannot connect to the mainland. Difficulty processing credit-card transactions has forced many businesses to accept only cash.

“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.

Hughes said outages aren’t foreign to people living on the islands, but this one stands out because no one knows exactly when the problem will be fixed.

“We’re going to be looking at this situation to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Hughes said local fire departments and volunteers have stepped up to do welfare checks on neighbors and make sure everyone is aware of how they can call for help.

Dive crews used robotic devices Friday to try to find the cut along a cable installed in 1999, said CenturyLink spokeswoman Jan Kampbell.

Other CenturyLink crews on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Island have been installing equipment to help with a temporary restoration of service.

CenturyLink does not have a firm estimate of when services will be completely restored.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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