The Florida Library is a place for the Internet after Hurricane Ian

Mark Adkins, 63, a nationally certified public accountant in compliance and ethics, works in a welcome desk holding brochures at the Punta Gorda Library Charlotte on Tuesday, October 11, 2022.

Mark Adkins, 63, a nationally certified public accountant in compliance and ethics, works in a welcome desk holding brochures at the Punta Gorda Library Charlotte on Tuesday, October 11, 2022.

Fresh Take Florida

In the library, cars bump into bumpers alongside fallen tree wrecks piled five feet high. Vehicles temporarily sit in fire lane while library staff try to track down their owners. Locals outside with laptops, camping chairs and patio tables from home. The entrance corridor is lined with eight folding tables and 20 metal chairs for overflow seating.

The crowd isn’t just here for the books. Many have come back online.

Punta Gorda Charlotte Library is one of the few places in the area that provides public access to the Internet, and is the only open library in Charlotte County. Residents find themselves temporarily constrained by a disconnected era before smartphones, Wi-Fi, video streaming, and 5G.

Efforts to restore contact became tragic last week when a private helicopter crashed Saturday night in South Fort Myers. Its four-man crew were working on setting up communications systems, and a firefighter on board the ship from Osiba Island was seriously injured.

After Hurricane Ian, some neighborhoods in southwest Florida spent weeks without the internet. Those who need it set up camp at the Punta Gorda Library. The latest update from the Federal Communications Commission said nearly 125,000 people remain without cable or wired phone service, even as cellular service returns online.

Wearing a Seattle Mariners hat and T-shirt, Musa Hamad, 40, of Punta Gorda sat in the teens section of the library with his 5-year-old daughter Malaya, and his neighbor’s son, who watched as his neighbor spoke via Zoom in her car.

Hamad, who works on a remote tech job, swapped out his 40-inch curved Dell monitor and a table of four in the middle of a crowded library, which sees three times more visitors per day than it did before the hurricane.

He prepared lunches and snacks for him and his two children sitting close to home with the tablets.

Hamad’s job relies mostly on tools like email and online collaboration tools like Slack and requires 13 to 15 hours of video conferencing each week. In the library, he was able to reserve one of the two private study rooms for two hours at a time to sit on conference calls without disturbing others.

Hamad plans to return to the library daily so that the Internet at home is restored. He must leave by 3pm to head to Harbor Social, a local restaurant with cable TV and internet access.

“It’s the Mariners’ first time in the playoffs in 20 years, and I can’t miss it,” Hamad said.

In a small booth in the corner of the library, Lisa Dunbar of Port Charlotte answered the phone.

“My boss called me,” she said, “and whispered, and asked if I was asleep.”

Dunbar’s pharmacy job, which she had worked for since 2005, has now gone completely away, allowing her to relocate from northern Illinois to Florida.

After surviving the first hurricane, Dunbar and her family live separate lives. Her two children, ages 16 and 18, regularly drive to the Cuban food market closest to their home where they are served by Verizon. Sitting in the parking lot, they can download videos from Netflix to watch later at home.

Like many in the area, Dunbar’s internet provider is Xfinity, which has told customers it may be able to restore service in parts of Punta Gorda later this week.

One of the few people in the building to have internet access at home, library superintendent Jonathan Westbrook worked with his staff to accommodate and assist visitors.

The library normally operates with 11 employees per day but has increased the number to 19, with some employees coming from other closed libraries in the county. Temporary business hours are 10am to 6pm, seven days a week until further notice. Westbrook said new visitors come for a variety of reasons.

“We have doctors doing phone visits right now, we have people coming in to do monitoring tests, people filling out forms, people working on the back porch and making video calls,” Westbrook said. “But in terms of exactly what they’re doing, we’re not asking.”

Book and movie rental prices have risen since the hurricane, although Westbrook said that will not continue once service is restored. About 250 new patrons signed up for library cards over the course of six days – the same amount the library would normally see in an entire month.

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Mark Adkins, 63, a Certified Public Accountant in Finance Nationally on Compliance and Ethics, works in a welcome desk holding brochures at the Punta Gorda Library in Charlotte on Tuesday, October 11, 2022. Lauren Waite Fresh Take Florida

Five minutes before he joined a conference call, accountant Mark Adkins, 63, was at a wooden table in the library entrance with a cup of Yeti coffee. He splits his time between Punta Gorda and Ohio, and heard about the library’s internet access from his wife on the Nextdoor app. Adkins didn’t expect to restore service at his home until the weekend.

Hurricane damage temporarily closed the MVP Realty offices in Port Charlotte, so 20-year-old Alexander Scotland was in the library for the first time in 13 years who had lived in the area. He was anxious to return to his office.

“I feel like when I work from home, I get distracted very easily,” he said.

“This is not necessarily our normal daily business,” said Westbrook, the librarian. “But this your local library lives up to the occasion for what needs to be done, and we’re proud to be here to do it.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service affiliated with the University of Florida’s School of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at grace.banahan@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support our students over here.

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