Lights Out

Much of Monterey County is rated for “elevated” fire risk and part is “extreme” fire risk, according to PG&E's public safety power shutoff plans. It's not clear why South County cities were shut off. 

Of the approximately 30,000 people affected by Pacific Gas & Electric’s preemptive power shutoff in South County last weekend, an estimated 2,500 had a medical device dependent on electricity, according to the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services. For those without a backup generator, that meant up to 36 hours without power for devices like sleep apnea machines, oxygen tanks and electric wheelchairs.

OES staff called each of those medically vulnerable customers, a process made more difficult by a tight timeframe. PG&E officials had first notified the county that Aromas would be losing power—where about 400 people did lose power—and less than 24 hours before the shutoff, added Gonzales, Soledad and Chualar to the list of affected areas. 

“A lot of people were telling us they had no resources at all, they’re just stranded,” says Gerry Malais, Monterey County’s emergency services manager. 

Gonzales and Soledad operated resource centers where people could charge medical devices, among other things like phones and laptops. 

But those without mobility were left with few options. “We don’t have resources to send people to your home,” Malais says. 

Disability services nonprofit Central Coast Center for Independent Living is partnering with PG&E to provide people dependent on electricity with external batteries or transportation to an area with power. The partnership, however, is still in its infancy; aside from one battery provided to a resident of Santa Cruz, “we haven’t implemented anything here yet,” says Jorge Ruiz, CCCIL’s assistive technology coordinator. 

Another nonprofit, Community Emergency Response Volunteers of the Monterey Peninsula, reached out to 998 medically vulnerable people in the shutoff area. CERV recently received $300,000 from the state to distribute to local nonprofits increasing disaster readiness among vulnerable communities, which they say will go toward education and outreach. Harvey Pressman, who serves on CERV’s advisory council, says disaster preparedness is key for people with disabilities, even for those not dependent on electronic equipment. That includes assembling a “medical passport” of necessary records and prescriptions in the case of evacuation. 

For people in Aromas who use wells, the shutoff didn’t just mean a lack a lack of electricity, but also a lack of water. Several fire departments in the area also lost power, which Malais says poses a problem if a fire did develop in the area. The county uses a recently-authored emergency power shutoff plan to coordinate responses among departments and agencies. 

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“This event is going to help us be better prepared for the future,” he says.

It was PG&E’s first public safety power shutoff—a planned shutoff meant to reduce wildfire risk during hot, dry, windy days—in Monterey County during a season that has seen days-long shutoffs throughout some of California’s biggest population centers. PG&E representatives have not answered the Weekly’s questions about why Gonzales and Soledad—urban communities surrounded by agricultural fields on all sides, rather than fire-prone woodlands or grasslands—were part of such a shutoff event.

Malais recommends that people sign up for phone and email emergency alerts from Monterey County, and keep enough supplies on hand for two weeks without power, along with a source of backup power. 

Equally important, he says, is maintaining a strong relationship with your neighbors. “Members of the  community need to reach out to other community members for assistance,” Malais says. “If the fire department can’t come because they’re going to a 500-acre brush fire, who is going to help you? Hopefully your neighbors will.”

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