Oh! What we can accomplish | Reporter’s Notebook

That old adage, it takes a crisis to find out who your friends are, played out in spades recently when the PNW’s atmospheric river undermined and dissolved the road between Doe Bay and the rest of the island.

As if to rival the speed at which the road dissolved, the resolve of those on the south end of what came to be called The Great Divide pulled together in a rush of community spirit to tackle the problem. Within 36 hours and the help of dozens of men and women, wood was cut, rails and supports were tooled and a footbridge was built that spanned the divide and made foot traffic and some contact with the rest of the island possible.

Almost immediately, social media lit up with offers of grocery-fetching for those unable to get to town. Island Rides offered trips for anyone needing to get to town, to appointments or to work. Locally owned Aeronautical Services put in the extra steps to ensure those expecting packages received them. The Orcas Island Community Foundation made warm and dry spaces available for those stuck in town awaiting a ride to the west side of the footbridge. Scores of islanders and county staff pulled together to do whatever they could to bridge the great divide, and on the day before Thanksgiving, in what can only be described as a Herculean effort, the washed-out bridge was open to one-lane traffic. Last week, OICF and the Orcas Community Resource Center launched a trial program to help islanders who experienced property damage and suffered economic losses due to the recent deluges. Thanks to community donations to the Community Emergency Response Fund, grants of up to $10,000 were made available to households that suffered damages. A total of $100,000 was given.

Even the most hardened of souls would have to agree: when this community has a mind to solve a problem, it does, and it does so with gusto, humility and an acute awareness that we are, all of us, in one way or another dependent upon each other.

In my relatively short tenure on Orcas and prior to the recent washouts, I have seen this community pull together during two snowstorms and two years of a pandemic. The commitment islanders have for each other is breathtaking and I am reminded, every day, of how fortunate I am to be able to live here, and how fortunate I am to find an affordable place to live.

It’s no secret that affordable housing is as scarce in the San Juans as the Hope diamond. Affordable long-term rentals or affordably priced family homes are at a premium. While liveable housing may have always been a scarce commodity in the San Juans, there is no denying the last few years have seen that scarcity increase.

Lately, that scarcity became personal. After four years in a lovely, affordable rental in a house close to town, I learned my landlord was putting the house on the market. In no time at all, I was facing what too many on this island face: a need for a long-term rental in my price range.

At first glance, there was nothing. I contacted a few people on the island who advocate for folks looking for affordable housing and contacted OPAL. I put my mug on social media outlining my needs and held my breath. I considered trying my luck on the other two islands and contemplated what I would do if I couldn’t find anything — a real possibility given the demand and lack of availability. Would I have to move away? Where would I go? My stress level shot up and I worried.

Scrolling through the Facebook page devoted to housing needs on Orcas, it was difficult to remain optimistic. Scores of people were looking: families with small children, people doing good work within the community, all in need of secure, warm housing as winter was setting in. And let’s face it, if a person is working for a local business they’re likely not making enough to afford thousands of dollars every month for rent. Nor are they likely to want to move when the tourist season starts up again and their rental goes from a monthly home to a weekly destination for visitors.

Recently, I was able to find something that works perfectly for me and meets my needs, and I know of so many others who continue to hold their breath wondering if they, too, will find something that works for them. Fellow islanders, this housing crisis is not going to go away — if anything, the need will become increasingly acute.

If we can bridge one end of the island in record time, we can address our critical housing need.