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Homes and businesses across California went dark on Wednesday as utilities shut off power to millions of customers in preparation for hot, dry wind expected to tear across the state.
Not even one year out from the deadly infernos sparked by PG&E equipment during similar weather conditions in Paradise, Calif., public officials acknowledged that the massive blackout as a necessary precaution — but rebuked the utility for not taking the proper safety steps to avoid it ahead of time.
“The potential for fire danger is serious and people must be prepared,” state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said in a statement provided to USA TODAY, adding that the enormous scope of the outages suggests that “PG&E clearly hasn’t made its system safe.”
As the chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Subcommittee on Gas, Electric and Transportation Safety, Hill held a hearing in August to ensure the state’s Public Safety Power Shutoff program would only be utilized as an extreme and temporary safety tactic, rather than a go-to response.
“These shutdowns are supposed to be surgical. Shutdowns that could impact as many as 800,000 people in 34 of our 58 counties are by no means surgical,” he said, calling on PG&E to make its system more resilient and safe.
Others took issue with the apparent lack of preparation on the part of PG&E to ensure enough resources were ready to inform concerned customers across the wide range of affected areas. As the outage loomed, the utility’s website shut down after being flooded with traffic, leaving many left to wonder if they would wake up without power.
“We are in the thick of it now. The state is 100% focused on getting through this event,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents the North Bay from Marin County to Del Norte County.
McGuire added that though the state is prioritizing the mobilization of resources to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable members of the community are being met during the power outage, lawmakers would make sure culpability comes next.
“The corporation has lacked some basic fundamentals to be able to execute such a large and challenging event,” he said, specifically citing PG&E’s website shortcomings.
“Believe you me, the time for accountability will come in the next few weeks,” McGuire said. “We are not missing a beat.”
Lawmakers also charged that the company is lagging on its other fire prevention goals.
“For years PG&E has done a poor job on maintenance and tree clearing, and they’re still not even close to where they need to be,” state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa said in a statement. While the Democrat added that public safety power shutoffs are needed under dire circumstances, he added that his constituents are frustrated that their power was terminated before the winds hit the North Bay.
“Sadly, poor performance by PG&E is par for the course, so it’s not surprising.”
An imperfect solution
Local leaders also were up in arms as they prepared their communities for the prolonged power outage.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that “this is the type of interruption to lives that should not happen” and emphasized that PG&E could have done more to prevent it.
“We are going to do it because we agree it is in the interest of the safety of people, but we have got to do better,” she said.
There are numerous risks that come with long outages, especially to those who rely on power for medical devices or building access. Non-working intersection lights also increase accident risk. A study released in 2012 found that for an excessively long blackout in New York City, mortality increased by 28% resulting in 90 excess deaths.
Still in the absence of other solutions, many maintained the outages are essential.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was in Oakland on Tuesday at a bill signing ceremony, said the blackout is an important part of the utility’s fire mitigation plan.
“The reality is that we want to protect people. We want to make sure people are safe. This is what PG&E thinks is in the best interest of their customers and ultimately for this region and the state,” he said. “No one wants to see this happen. But it is a public safety issue.”
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