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Bottled water is in short supply as shoppers stock up at the Safeway on Fruitvale Avenue, preparing for a planned PG&E power outage. Photo by Caroline Hart.

Oaklanders get ready to face PG&E power cuts

on October 9, 2019

On Wednesday afternoon, Oakland residents prepared for the power to go out, anticipating cuts that were initially expected to begin in Alameda County at noon. Parts of the Oakland hills and East Oakland are the most likely to be affected by the outages, which Pacific Gas and Electric estimates will affect 32,680 county residents.

PG&E officials plan to cut power to parts of more than 30 Northern California counties as a wildfire prevention measure. This decision followed the last two unusually destructive fire seasons, during which the utility’s power lines were found to have caused the November, 2018, Camp Fire, which left 85 dead.

The National Weather Service warned of extreme fire danger in much of the Bay Area on Wednesday and Thursday, as low humidity and high winds provide the right environment for wildfires to spark and spread rapidly. According to the service, the forecasted wind may be the strongest the Bay Area has seen since fires devastated Sonoma and Napa Counties in 2017. 

The utility announced its Public Safety Power Shutoff program in March, 2018. Since the first shutoff last October—when PG&E cut power to El Dorado, Placer, Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Amador and Calaveras counties, affecting about 60,000 people— the utility has cut power on the basis of public safety seven times, including Wednesday’s planned outage. According to PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian, the current planned shutoff is the largest the utility has done so far. 

At 1:30 pm, Oakland city officials announced that PG&E will instead shut off power in Alameda County at 8 pm due to strong gusts of winds expected to start at 10 pm. According to the city’s announcement, PG&E expects to restore power by midday on Thursday. 

Sergeant Ray Kelley, a public information officer at the Alameda County’s Sherriff’s Office, described the delay of the power outage as welcome. “We would much rather have it at that time where people are not commuting, we don’t have the traffic issues, we don’t have congestion issues,” he said. But, Kelly cautioned, “people will wake up to no power” and encouraged residents to check in with employers and school districts about whether they will be open tomorrow.

In a news briefing held at the company’s headquarters on Tuesday night, Evan Duffey, a senior meteorologist for PG&E, said that forecasts anticipated a strong offshore wind beginning Wednesday night and lasting through Friday. A combination of strong winds, low humidity, and dry fuel resulted in forecasts of high fire danger. “By all metrics, this is forecast to be the strongest offshore wind event since October, 2017,” Duffy said. 

A combination of factors, including a recent drought, tree death in the Sierra Mountains, and housing development in areas bordering wilderness have led to particularly dangerous fire conditions, Duffey noted. “A lot of things have changed in California, I think, in the past 30 years, that have made this a bigger issue than in the past,” he said.

“We very much understand the inconvenience and difficulty such a power outage could cause, and we do not take or make this decision lightly,” said Sumeet Singh, vice president of Asset and Risk Management for PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, speaking at the meeting. “We implement the public safety power shutoff as a last resort.”

Singh said the decision to cut power was purely a public safety decision, not an attempt to avoid future legal action against PG&E should wildfires begin this season. Currently, utility officials do not plan to offer to recoup any financial losses customers might suffer as a result of the shutoff, he said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Oakland’s major hospitals and medical centers remained operational. According to Chief Operating Officer Tom Hanenburg, all Kaiser Permanente facilities have emergency generators that can support critical hospital systems during a power outage.

Hanenburg said Kaiser is also working with patients to reschedule appointments for outpatient care. They are also encouraging patients who rely on medical devices at home to obtain rechargeable batteries.  (The Pacific ADA Center, which provides information to people with disabilities and who may depend on medical devices or centers for treatment, has provided this downloadable information sheet for medical device users and their caretakers.) 

While Highland Hospital is not expected to be affected, public relations officer Jeanne Herrerra said they have generators that can maintain 96 hours of critical care.  

At Dignity Health Urgent Care, if power were to go out, registered nurse Denise McPherson said clinicians would complete the patient visit and arrange for them to be transferred to one of their other 14 Bay Area locations that have power.

Major transit services were also running normally. In an email, AC Transit media affairs manager Robert Lyles wrote that the agency “is not currently affected by the utility company’s Public Safety Power Shutoff.”

BART representatives also did not anticipate any changes to service because of the shutoff. “At some stations we may need to switch to generator power, which means escalators at those stations will not be in service,” media relations manager Jim Allison wrote in an email. “Elevators and lighting are expected to be operational.”

Oakland Police Department representatives could not be reached for comment. In an automated email, the department’s Public Information Officers wrote that they would be “out of the office and in the field” for the duration of the power outage.  

Similarly, representatives from the city’s fire department, transportation department and mayor’s office had not responded by press time.

Sergeant Kelly of the sheriff’s office said that across Alameda County, police departments are increasing patrols and requiring inactive officers to be immediately ready for duty.  

All Oakland Unified School District campuses remained open Wednesday, except for Skyline High School, which abuts Redwood Regional Park in the hills of East Oakland. According to OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki, district officials made an exception for Skyline due to its location along a ridge and the fact that many students are bused to campus. “If there was any emergency, we wouldn’t have been able to get the buses in and out,” Sasaki said. “We felt that it was prudent to err on the side of caution.”

PG&E officials initially announced that 11 OUSD schools, including two charter schools, would potentially be affected by the planned outages. Sasaki said that since Alameda County outages would not go into effect before noon, and district schools have early releases around 1 p.m. every Wednesday, district officials decided they would keep schools open and try to finish out the day’s instruction, even if students would have “dark classrooms or hallways for that last hour,” he said.

OUSD officials announced Wednesday afternoon that nine schools will be closed Thursday: Fruitvale Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Howard Elementary, Montclair Elementary, Sequoia Elementary, Elmhurst United, Rudsdale Continuation, Skyline High School and Sojourner Truth K-12 school. A post on the OUSD Facebook page announced that schools will likely be open on Friday. 

Outages affected a small number of private schools in Oakland, including the K-12 Head Royce School in the Lincoln Highlands. Laney College remained open Wednesday, while Merritt College and Holy Names University will both be closed through Thursday. 

In East Oakland, which along with the hills area is most likely to be affected by power outages, some stores and offices had closed, while at others, people were doing last-minute shopping.

At the Eastmont Town Center, the Social Security Administration Office was open for its regular Wednesday hours of 9 am to noon. But most other businesses and service providers in the nearly empty center were closed or preparing to do so in anticipation of the power cuts. 

The Eastmont Town Center was nearly empty early on Wednesday.

At Gazalli’s Supermarket, a line of half a dozen customers had formed outside the popular grocer’s closed exit doors, where a security guard was also posted. “We’re letting a few people in at a time,” a young employee announced to the line, as several more people approached the storefront. The employee said that although the power had not been cut, the store’s staff had decided to limit the number of customers so that they wouldn’t have to kick out large numbers of people later. “It’s not our fault. It’s PG&E’s fault,” she said, as a couple of flustered customers left the line.   

At Foothill Square, another major shopping center in East Oakland, small business owners expressed uncertainty and anxiety over when the power cuts would occur, if at all. David Kim, the owner of Young’s Dry Cleaners, said that the possible power cuts would affect customer pickups and deliveries. Kim said that PG&E had not communicated with his business directly, or others in the shopping area. The most challenging thing, he said, was “not being able to plan accordingly and communicate with customers.” Kim said that in spite of the monetary losses and customer upsets, he was confident that his family business’s customer base would be understanding of the situation. “There’s just that middle-ground approach of ‘wait and see,’” Kim said. 

At the Safeway on Fruitvale Avenue in the Dimond District, Andrea Rosas, who was working in the Starbucks kiosk, said, “It’s been chaotic so far. Everyone’s here for ice, batteries and this morning we even restocked batteries at 7 am.” She said that they ran out of big bottles of water early on, and that people had been asking her for ice.

Charles Brown, an Oakland resident who was shopping at Safeway, said he was prepared and had a generator, a flashlight and ice. “We don’t know when it will happen,” he said.

Miquan Johnson, who was at the store with his daughters Maleah and Milee, said that because he’s from the East Coast, where the power often goes out during snowstorms, he was totally unphased. He said he had already stored food and water. “We’ll just deal with it,” he said. 

Wayne Wong, the manager at Wayland’s Meat Market on Fruitvale Avenue, said that he was not sure if the location of his market will be part of the shutoff, but that if it is, it will mean a big loss for his business. He sells a variety of meat, poultry and seafood, and doesn’t have a freezer. “I will definitely look for a commercial storage unit, or places where I can keep my merchandise,” Wong said. If the power goes off at the market, he said he’d have to act very quickly, within four to six hours, to find a storage solution. “We might have to take a loss,” he said.

John Kim, the owner at Nama Japanese Cuisine on Fruitvale Avenue, said that the way PG&E is handling the outage is frustrating. “This is ridiculous,” Kim said. “This is not a third world country. This is the U.S., and this is the richest country in the world.”

Kim said that he would also have four to six hours before his fresh food, including sushi fish, would go bad. If the power shuts off, he said, he’ll throw out the food and close the restaurant for the day. But he cited not being able to pay his employees and potential looting as the most concerning aspects of the shutoff. He worried that if alarms or electronic locks don’t work in a shutoff, people might try to steal from his business.

Thanh Trinh, an employee at Tu Tai 3, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Dimond District, said that she checked on a map and it looked like the power for the restaurant won’t be affected by the power outage. But a different map made by The San Francisco Chronicle said a shutoff was likely for that address. Trinh said that if the power is shut off, employees will have to throw out food, and that they’d also close the restaurant temporarily.

As people scramble to procure nonperishable food and water, food banks and distribution events may also be affected by the outages. Norma Batongbacal, the marketing and communications manager for the Alameda County Food Bank, said in an email that affected distribution partners are currently working to determine their ability to operate. “Our Food Bank is also awaiting news of potential power shutoff for our own facility,” she wrote.  “Anyone needing food should call our Helpline at 1-800-870-FOOD (3663). In the event our Food Bank’s power is shutoff, people needing food should call 211.”

PG&E’s community resource center located in Lot B at Merritt College is a place to cool off and recharge. The center offers charging stations, bottled water and bathrooms.

PG&E has opened one community resource center per county where people can charge devices, use a restroom, or cool off with air conditioning. Alameda County’s center is in Oakland in parking lot B of Merritt College. It’s a white tent stocked with pallets of bottled water and folding tables with power strips. Two large generators are keeping the lights on.  On Wednesday afternoon, it was sparsely populated, mostly with reporters, staff and security guards.

A PG&E code of conduct sign posted inside the center outlines the rules intended to keep the center safe, asking people to limit charging devices to one at a time, respect the privacy of others, supervise minors, and to “dress appropriately” by wearing shoes and shirts. It also notes that animals are prohibited, except for service animals.

Tonight they are open until 8 pm and plan to be open from 8 am to 6 pm through Friday. 

This story was updated at 5:30 pm.

You can find a list of useful websites that will have updates on the outage and the availability of services here.

Lead photo: Bottled water is in short supply as shoppers stock up at the Safeway on Fruitvale Avenue, preparing for a planned PG&E power outage. Photo by Caroline Hart.

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