Squirrel causes Saturday power outages in Oakland and Berkeley Hills

A squirrel

A squirrel (not this squirrel) caused power outages in Oakland and Berkeley Hills Saturday night. Photo courtesy Nickomargolies at en.wikipedia

Nearly 11,000 PG&E customers in Oakland and Berkeley Hills lost power on Saturday night—twice—between 5 p.m. and around 8 p.m. Restaurant ovens and credit card machines went down, came back on, then cut off again. Bar-hoppers were sent home. Residents without power drove down streets, looking for places still open for business.

The reason for this disruption? One curious squirrel.

“A squirrel had gotten into some of the transmission equipment at our substation,” PG&E spokseperson Jana Morris said Sunday. “As a result, there was an equipment failure, and customers did lose power.”

Morris said PG&E workers are still investigating exactly what the squirrel did to set off the failure, and that the squirrel, unfortunately, had perished.

The first outage was reported at 5:03 p.m., Morris said, affecting 10,959 customers spanning areas north of Broadway Terrace in Oakland, east of Claremont Avenue, and west of Grizzly Peak Boulevard in Berkeley. Power was restored at 6:23 p.m, she said; and although PG&E had hoped to keep the power on while repairing the damage, the company was unable to do so. A second outage began at about 7 p.m. and kept the electricity off for another hour, Morris said.

In the busy commercial center of Rockridge, several shops and eateries worked diligently in the dark, turned customers away and closed early during prime time weekend business hours.

For many, it was a frustrating sales loss. Claremont Diner and The Graduate bar owner Javad Parsa said he closed down diner operations an hour early, while the bar reopened after power was restored the second time—but that many people had already moved on to other bars or simply gone home.

“Saturday night, that’s the only night we’re making real money,” Parsa said. He estimated that he lost about $300 on bar operations and $400 from the power outages at the diner. With his credit card machines down, Parsa was left to pick up the tab. “I told them, ‘You are my guest,’” he said, with a laugh, though he added that some customers offered to come back and pay.

Just down the street at Barclay’s Restaurant and Pub, workers stopped cooking but continued serving beer after the first power outage. But by the time the second outage hit, it was too dark to do much of anything.

“We had to cancel everything, even everybody’s beer, because there were no lights in here,” said assistant manager Tory Burleson. “We had candles, but they didn’t light up [the bar] enough.” The business closed around 8:30 p.m.—nearly four hours earlier than their usual midnight closing time—ending the fun for patrons, many of whom were football fans. “It was during a Cal game, and we’re usually really, really busy for Cal games,” Burleson said. She estimated the bar lost at least $2,000 in sales.

Other workers in College Avenue businesses improvised where they could.  A Trader Joe’s manager who preferred not to be named said workers stood outside, handing out cookies and goodies to appease customers inconvenienced by the power outage. After the first blackout, the store reopened for about five minutes, but employees had to escort customers out once again after the second hit, she said.

“Some customers had to leave their groceries behind, and we apologized,” she said, adding they weren’t sure when power would be restored. “We advised them not to wait around.”

Jennifer Alviso, a manager at Zachary’s Pizza, said workers were hand-cranking ovens to keep their pizza oven shelves rotating—normally electric motors take care of that job. “It was just after the Cal game,” Alviso said of the first outage. “There were a lot of people who just arrived.”

Thanks to the hand-cranking option, Alviso and team were able to serve the majority of those in the dining room, though customers in the waiting area were sent home with half-baked pies. Some full refunds were required for customers who lived in outage areas and couldn’t cook their pizzas at home. “We were still able to function, but not as quickly as we would have liked to,” Alviso said.

Zachary’s stopped taking orders at 8 p.m. and closed early after the second outage, instead of staying open until 10:30 p.m. “We decided not to reopen,” Alviso said. “By the time that we got the oven warm enough to start cooking pizzas again, it would be too close to closing time.”

On the other hand, College Avenue’s Market Hall was one of the few businesses in the affected area with power, thanks to a back-up generator. William Monroy, a supervisor for Market Hall Produce, said, “We were like a beacon in the middle of darkness.” Monroy said about 100 people came through the doors that evening, which was out of the ordinary. “We don’t get that much business at 6 or 7 p.m. and we got pretty busy in that hour. Usually we don’t have lines,” he said.

Hannah Bonbe, a supervisor at Market Hall’s Pasta Shop, said she got out of work half an hour later than usual, due to the busy stream of customers.

Other well-known businesses in the area, like Claremont Hotel and Resort, the Safeway on College Avenue and at Rockridge Center, and the Claremont Country Club did not experience power outages, though they were near the affected areas.  Morris of PG&E explained that, because of the way the circuits are mapped out by engineers, “There are the cases where you’re experiencing a power outage, but the person down street still has lights on.”

Back at Zachary’s, customers in the dining room lucky enough to get fully baked pies used candles and iPhone flashlights to light their way through dinner. As for the culprit behind the outages, Alviso had to admit, “That’s impressive work for a squirrel.”

2 Comments

  1. Allan

    What if we had a real disaster – say an earthquake – that knocked out the power grid for a week – how many shops would be able to receive food from their warehouses, stock their shelf’s, and distribute food and water and pharm supplies?

  2. Borut Prah

    To see the problem just look at the high voltage powerlines along Tunnel Road. After 1991 firestorm most power lines were undergrounded, but not along Tunnel road where major high voltage powerlines continue to provide the third world look to this high class neighborhoood. Why? Because many residents along Tunnel Road refused to share the undergrounding costs with PG&E.

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