PG&E power shutoff left some residents in the dark, others unaffected

Exedra staff

Street lights out in Montclair on Thursday, October 10.

Piedmont was not hit hard by this week’s Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) by PG&E, if that’s any solace to the estimated 1,400 households in town who did lose service, including some who were not expecting to be in the darkened area.

Even with advance notice of the shutoff and advance preparations by city staff, the event was a valuable first-hand experience — for residents and public safety personnel alike — on what could happen, how to respond and what needs to be improved before the next large scale disaster.

“It was a great learning experience for us on what procedures can be put in action,” said Assistant City Administrator John Tulloch. “We got that experience and can use it going forward for all sorts of things.”

The major hiccup was confusion over the outage area.

“PG&E had given us maps that it posted on its website and sent to the city of the anticipated power shutoff areas. Some of the area in Piedmont that did get shut off was not in that area,” Tulloch said.

He said the lack of precision was not unanticipated, and that “Our message to residents all week was to be prepared even if the map says their power is not going to be shut off.”

The city first learned about the planned PSPS on Sunday night. “We had an all-hands, full court press starting Monday morning,” Tulloch said. “PG&E was distributing information to local governments and counties through the emergency management process that is in place,” with a designated point of contact for the city.

“We brought in extra police and fire resources to have them ready. Fortunately, nothing happened,” Tulloch said. “We took the opportunity to practice what we do and we can move forward from there.”

PG&E, as has been well-publicized, was not itself sufficiently prepared for the event that affected hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses around the region.

In particular, PGE was not prepared to handle the large volume of people trying to access its online outage map or telephone the utility for information.

“I think like anything of this size it was a learning experience for (PG&E) as well. If you listened to the press conference last night the CEO was saying they could have done better in a lot of ways,” Tulloch said. “My understanding is that this was a larger shutoff by several orders of magnitude than they had ever done before.”

Residents, in turn, also received real life experience in preparation that no drill or instruction could duplicate. “I think there was a photo in the New York Times showing empty shelves at the Grand Lake Ace Hardware,” Tulloch said. “People certainly took the opportunity to get the supplies they needed.”

City personnel patrolled the outage areas from late Wednesday until the restoration of service Thursday evening. “I don’t think the Fire Department went door-to-door, but personnel went into the area without power to check on folks and talked to residents out on the street,” Tulloch said. “Police and fire and public works crews were out in the area making sure people were OK.”

Tulloch said there were no instances of people with medical needs who required assistance, “but we were prepared for it. We got data from PG&E and the county about people who may have needs and we reached out to them.”

A charging station was set up at City Hall for blacked out residents needing to charge phones.

For residents, “I think the best takeaway from this is to have a disaster kit ready that can sustain your family and pets for several days following a disaster,” Tulloch said. You can find the comprehensive “Get Ready Piedmont” guide here.

“It’s good information about what should be in disaster kits, he said. “We encourage people to be ready for whatever may happen — a power outage, earthquake, fire, or whatever — for several days.”

Steps include a self-generated map residents can customize to their neighborhood showing resources and needs on the block in the event of a disaster. He added that “The police and fire departments are happy to do neighborhood preparedness presentations.”

City personnel will get another chance to drill on disaster readiness when they participate in the 12th annual Great Shakeout earthquake drill next week.

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