SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On Monday, Oct. 7, Pacific Gas & Electric Company [PG&E] gave a warning that nearly 800,000 of its customers could be without power.
On Wednesday, Oct. 9, the power was turned off.
A total of 738,000 PG&E customers in 35 counties were without electricity at some point during the power shutoff, according to PG&E. Nearly one-third of the customers affected lived in Humboldt, Sonoma, El Dorado and Placer Counties.
After the power came back on, leaders in communities impacted by the power shutoffs reflected on how they handled the power outage and how they could better serve their community in the future.
Each county across the state handled the shutoff differently. Here is how local leaders in counties with a large share of PG&E customers affected handled and plan to handle future significant outages.
1. What went right?
Socorro Shiels, superintendent of Sonoma Valley Unified School District:
"We had a great communication experience with our city and county emergency operations teams. They kept the infrastructure of our community- public institutions, private businesses, and essential community nonprofit partners and providers all on the same page and connected. The leadership on that front was strong and intentional"
Enoch Ibarra, Fortuna Police Department's spokesperson:
"The recent PG&E blackouts gave us an opportunity to really examine the continuity of operations for our department. It helped us to see where there are deficiencies in our Emergency Operations Plan, and correct them. In the past two years, we had conducted numerous bilingual emergency and disaster preparedness classes, which we believe contributed to most of our community being prepared. With a few minor glitches, our department operated pretty much as usual, with the exception of added patrols. And, because of our County Office of Emergency Services, we were kept well informed, and used social media to help keep our community informed."
Jill Gayaldo, Rocklin city councilmember:
"I think the most beneficial preparation we made, was getting our city and school district leadership together to prepare. We have regular meetings with two members of our city council, our city manager, and two members of our school board and their superintendent. We met before the shut off‘s were scheduled to review mutual areas of concern, and specific ways we can support each other. Schools that might shut down and have students moved to other sites were identified, and we had plans in place for that eventuality. We found that even though schools we thought would have to close were able to remain open with power, many parents still kept their children home because they had been notified they may have school closures and they made other plans for their children’s care. Communication with our residents in advance was key, and both the school board and city Council sent messages to prepare residence for issues such as school closures, traffic lights that would be in operable, and emergency services impacts. I also believe the opportunities we had this past year attending presentations from first responders of the Paradise fires helped to bring renewed emphasis to fire safety and preparations."
Ray Leftwich, Lincoln public works director:
"Communication between Police, Fire and Public Works was exceptional. All departments worked well to achieve the goal of providing public safety and utility services to our residents. Public Works crews were very well prepared and were able to pre-deploy stop signs at all traffic signals that were anticipated to be affected, as well as ensuring backup generators were in position and ready to continue operation of sewer lift stations, water distribution facilities and communication antennas. All City staff performed exceptionally well and proved that they were extremely well prepared."
Sean Quincy, deputy county administrative officer for Humbold County:
"Public agencies, private businesses and residents all stepped up to help each other get through the shutoff. This is the kind of effort we will need if and when a natural disaster strikes our community. The county in particular had gone through the work of developing organization-wide continuity of operations plans, so we were able to do things like shut down or minimize many of our administrative functions in order to do things like preserve fuel for our 24-hour facilities and make sure those we could go in to the community make contact with our most vulnerable residents."
2. What did not go well?
"The Valley was unique in that the entire Sonoma Valley (City of Sonoma and unincorporated county area know as the Valley) lost all power. This created a different hardship for our whole community. Following the fires, it reactivated stresses and triggered fears. Whereas other places in the county had only parts of a city or town lose power, the Valley went completely dark."
"We were unable to immediately bring our generators online when the blackout occurred and this caused our IT servers and phone lines dependent on them to go down for a period of time."
Jamie Hansen, spokesperson for Sonoma County Office of Education:
"Discrepancies in the maps that were made available to different stakeholders made it very confusing and difficult for school districts to decide whether or not to close. In one case, a school district was informed that they would have power shut off, so they made the call to close school. However, the power was never turned off. Schools want to provide parents with clear, consistent information about any pending school closures because they know the impact that such closures have on working families. However, this was very difficult given the rapidly changing and sometimes inconsistent information that schools were receiving."
Merritt Perry, Fortuna city manager:
"The notice provided by PG&E did not provide certainty until three hours before the event and that caused uncertainty as to whether or not we needed to respond. Some of our remote telemetry equipment did not have power and we did not have emergency generators for small equipment."
"Lincoln Boulevard did not function well with all traffic signals in the downtown area being out of service and replaced by stop signs. We made a change of course mid-event to utilize backup generators that proved to work very well and will be a change to our Standard Operating Procedure."
Michael Winkler, Arcata city councilmember:
"The thing that went the most wrong is that PG&E attempted, unsuccessfully, to disconnect Humboldt County from the outside electricity grid and run all of Humboldt County using the local power plant. The plant has enough electrical capacity to do so."
3. What could you do differently next time this happens?
"We are planning on implementing specific emergency preparedness messages and tips for our citizens by including these in the monthly water bills sent to them, and on social media. We need to continually inspect our generator back-up system."
"One concern we have is communicating with the districts we serve when email and cell phone service is negatively impacted by a PSPS. We are looking into new systems that would enable messaging across multiple platforms."
"We plan to increase the number of traffic signals that we can maintain on backup generator to provide continuous service for better traffic flow. We are also working on backup power capabilities of other facilities to ensure continuous ability to respond and provide critical services to the community."
"Over the next 10 years, we have concrete plans to make Humboldt County energy independent using onshore and offshore wind and biomass. At the same time, I will work with other community members to make the local energy grid resilient against natural disasters and planned shutdowns."
4. What do you want to say to PG&E?
"I appreciate the hard work and effort that went into trying to keep our community safe. I also want to believe there is another way that doesn't disrupt lives and learning."
"Please work on ensuring that there is redundancy for areas like ours that were not affected by high winds, but still had a total mandatory blackout of electricity for 24 hours. And, we would ask that we be given more time to prepare if PG&E knows in advance that they are in fact going to turn power off to our area."
"We would request clear, consistent communications, keeping schools in mind as a key stakeholder group. As well, when PG&E's mapping tool crashed due to a large amount of website traffic, it made planning and communications even more difficult for school districts."
"PG&E should consider ways to keep Humboldt County powered by the generating sources that exist there and not shut down a whole county due to two vulnerable transmission lines that cross the mountains to Humboldt County. The power sources that exist in Humboldt should be able to power Humboldt independently. This is key resilience improvement that should be made and likely would have much more benefit than cost. PG&E should also look to strengthen the two transmission lines that serve Humboldt to avoid this in the future and invest more in safety and resiliency projects."
"We have questions. Why weren’t we informed that it was a possibility that the entire county could lose power due to a PSPS several counties away? Was this possibility anticipated and not communicated? Why didn’t they already know that they would be unable to distribute locally generated power? We lost a planning day (Monday) as a result of the first issue, and the community lost a planning day while we waited for the results of the last ditch effort at 6 PM on Tuesday, 6 hours before the scheduled shutoff."
Editors note: ABC10 has reached out to leaders in Humboldt, Sonoma, El Dorado and Placer Counties. ABC10 will add to the story as more responses come in.
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