Technicians from CenturyLink and power systems contractor Hartcom work through the night repairing damage caused by a lightning strike. Photo by Richard Taylor

By Richard Taylor 

Local residents and visitors were awakened in the wee hours Sunday morning by two hours of intense thunder and lightning. That by itself wasn’t unusual. What happened next was definitely out of the ordinary.

Sunny skies returned by the time local church services began at 11 a.m. Ocracoke United Methodist Church Pastor Logan Jackson soon noticed his normal Facebook Live broadcast stopped working at 11:15. Jackson was unsuccessful in restarting it.

By that time, others had discovered that all CenturyLink communications services on the island were down (except for radio-connected fire and EMS). Those with access to Starlink, could get internet service.

Most assumed it was another off-island fiber optic cable cut, something that has already occurred twice this year. This time, even local landline phone service was uncharacteristically out of service.

But according to Danielle Spears, corporate communications with CenturyLink, “We identified the cause as a lightning strike that hit our tower and caused a power surge.”

The lightning strike occurred around 3:30 am in the morning, but backup batteries kicked in keeping the service going for several more hours, according to Ocracoke’s commissioner Randal Mathews, a former CenturyLink network technician. “When the batteries fell below a certain voltage, the machines started failing. That’s why even though this lightning strike was at about 3:30 in the morning, we really didn’t start losing service until 11:15 a.m. when the batteries got too weak. They held for six or seven hours, which is pretty darn good.”

By 10 p.m. Sunday night, CenturyLink’s off-island network technicians and contractors were on the island replacing the damaged equipment, three blown rectifiers, electronic devices that convert alternating current to direct current.

Most internet, cell phone and landline services returned to normal at 3:26 a.m. Monday morning and all services were restored by noon on Monday, Aug. 1, according to Spears.

During the public comment period of the Hyde County commissioners meeting on Monday, former Ocracoke county commissioner Tom Pahl provided a written statement about the loss of landline/911 service for the third time this year.

“We were extremely lucky that none of these incidents coincided with a medical or fire emergency,” he said. “But we really shouldn’t depend on luck when it comes to the health and safety of our citizens. This has happened three times and I think it would be prudent to have a plan in place for the next time.”

He said two things need to be addressed.

“The first one is to put in place a backup communications system that will quickly connect people with 911,” he said. “That might be one or more Starlink dial up options WITHOUT password protect located at the OVFD and/or other logical public locations.”

The second is how to communicate the need and the availability of the backup communications system.

“For example,” he said, “park a fire truck outside the station with a big sign in it that says ‘911 EMERGENCY CALL HOT SPOT,’ or similar notification.

“Also, big signage in two or three other prominent locations so that our residents and our visitors have a chance of knowing that this situation is under way and what to do in case they find themselves in an emergency. These may not be the only or even the best ways we can prepare for the next time we lose all normal communications, but let’s recognize that this is a serious problem, and we need a plan in place to address it. Maybe touch base with the Control Group for some additional ideas, but let’s not be unprepared again.”

After Pahl’s comments were read, Mathews provided an update on how these issues are being actively addressed, much of what he said is reported in Wireless broadband project in trial phase on Ocracoke.

Peter Vankevich contributed to this story.

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