Anger grows as utility struggles to get its blackouts right

Anger grows as utility struggles to get its blackouts right

SAN FRANCISCO — As Pacific Gas & Electric deliberately shut off power to homes and businesses to prevent wildfires, it has failed to communicate with California officials, given conflicting accounts about when the lights would go out and advised people to get information “the old-fashioned way, through calling on a landline.”

The behemoth power company is still struggling to get it right, weeks after it first started plunging millions of people into darkness to prevent strong winds from toppling its power lines and igniting fires.

PG&E’s widespread power outages have come in waves in October, sparking reprimands from state officials and growing anger as the blackouts stretch on for days in Northern California.

Caught in the middle are millions of customers forced to endure without the needs of modern life. More than 500,000 people remained in the dark Wednesday, some since Saturday.

“Northern California residents are exhausted. They’re fried. And this is completely unacceptable,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents vast swaths of areas still in the dark. “Californians deserve better from this utility.”

Winds calmed down Wednesday, easing the dangerous fire conditions and allowing PG&E to shift its focus to getting the electricity back on.

But the pain moved south, where several fires broke out amid howling winds in the Los Angeles area and forced evacuations. Utilities in Southern California have shut off power to 250,000 people.

Two powerful windstorms have pounded Northern California in less than a week, prompting PG&E to shut off the lights three times in one week and four times this month. But its equipment still may have ignited a massive blaze in Sonoma County wine country that has destroyed 94 homes.

PG&E faced crushing condemnation for its poor execution in the first widespread blackout Oct. 9 — its website failed, and customers couldn’t get through by phone. People were confused about when and where the power would go out.

Local governments complained about the lack of communication before the Oct. 9 outage and filed reports with regulators. In a response filed Wednesday with the Public Utilities Commission, PG&E acknowledged “various, and in some cases, extreme, shortcomings, including failure of the website, and co-ordination with state local and tribal governments” during the shut-off.

But it said it has since updated its website “to provide helpful and useful information to the public.”

Many of its customers disagreed, saying it was difficult to get to a map of outages and find specifics on when the electricity would go off or come back on.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and smelled smoke. I wanted to use my phone to find if fire was nearby, but the battery was out, and without electricity, I couldn’t charge it,” Judy Keene said Monday.

The Berkeley resident said her old-fashioned phone didn’t work either.

“I thought our landline would work,” Keene said. “That’s the reason we had a landline.”

Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s senior director of emergency preparedness and response, appeared stumped Tuesday night when asked how people should get information when the power is already out and many cellphone towers have stopped working.

“People could get the information from a website through family,” he suggested, “or they could just get it the old-fashioned way through calling on a landline.”

Fewer than half of U.S. households have a landline, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. More than 70 per cent of young adults and renters have only a cellphone, the data says.

Local officials said information from PG&E has been slow and sometimes wrong or outdated, making it hard for them keep people informed.

“Every time PG&E gives us information, we’re really not certain whether it’s accurate or not, or if that’s what actually will happen,” said Carmel Angelo, Mendocino County administrator.

The entire county north of San Francisco lost power, and residents and officials were told it would come back after the first windstorm passed last week. PG&E said the second wind blast this week wouldn’t force blackouts in its most populous areas, but they did, she said.

In Marin County, north of San Francisco, PG&E responded to reports that it turned off power 15 hours earlier than it said it would Tuesday by blaming “operational constraints” because of fire and “a co-ordination error.”

Communication improved after the early October outage, but “there’s still much left to be desired,” said Leine Hendricks, a spokeswoman for Marin County, where residents have called wanting to know when their power would be back.

“Residents are like, ‘Why don’t you know?’” Hendricks said. “It’s a hard question to answer. Most of the time, local government should be able to answer those questions, but this is something that’s out of our hands. We’re just trying to remind them that we’re in the same boat.”

Power has come back to most of the county, she said, but thousands are still in the dark.

PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson said the company will give a one-time credit to customers hit by the first blackout as a “recognition of things that we didn’t do well.”

In a statement, the company implied the problems were solely related to its website and call centre communications. It has not said how much it will pay.

“I feel like when it eventually comes back on, people are going to be like, ‘What day is it? Where are we? What is that bright light coming from our ceiling?’” said Madeleine Kelley Stewart, chef and innkeeper at the Kelley & Young Wine Garden Inn, which is in an area of Sonoma County wine country that’s been in the dark since Saturday. “It’s going to be like a bunch of Neanderthals poking at fire.”

___

Cooper reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed.

Jonathan J. Cooper And Juliet Williams, The Associated Press

California blackouts

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Anger grows as utility struggles to get its blackouts right

Anger grows as utility struggles to get its blackouts right

Just Posted

Trail RCMP report three impaired driving investigations. Photo: Black Press file
New drunk driving rules allow police to impose tougher penalties immediately

New impaired driving regulations started on Tuesday

(Lacombe Express file photo)
Lacombe County holds the line on taxes

Staff hiring freeze planned for 2021 to make up for lost oil and gas revenue

Alberta premier Jason Kenney declared a public health state of emergency Tuesday and sweeping new measures as COVID-19 cases in the province continue to rise.  (photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta premier says hospitals stressed by COVID-19, more surgeries may be cancelled

EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta’s largest hospitals are at 91… Continue reading

A cleaner wipes a glass panel at Toronto's Eaton Centre Shopping mall on Saturday, March 21, 2020. The national statistics office will say this morning how much the domestic economy bounced back in the third quarter of the year. The Canadian economy suffered its worst three-month stretch on record in the second quarter as the economy came to a near halt in April before starting to recover in May and June. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Statistics Canada says economy grew at a record pace in third quarter of 2020

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says the economy grew at a record annualized… Continue reading

Bill C-4 passed in the House of Commons to authorize new benefits for workers left jobless or underemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic. (File photo)
Tory MPs keep talking on assisted dying bill as clock ticks down to Dec. 18 deadline

OTTAWA — Conservative MPs are refusing to be rushed into a vote… Continue reading

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

(Black Press File Photo)
Rimbey woman gathering Christmas gifts for seniors at Valleyview Manor

Margaret Tanasiuk says she doesn’t want anyone to feel forgotten on Christmas morning

Mike Miltimore, seen in Kamloops, B.C., in an undated handout photo, says the Gretsch electric guitar that a woman brought into his store is from 1955 and similar to one played by country music legend Chet Atkins before he developed his signature series of guitars. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mike Miltimore
Guitar made in 1950s worth more than B.C. family imagined

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — When Renee Latheur decided to take an old guitar… Continue reading

Lewis Hamilton won the German Grand Prix after Sebastian Vettel crashed while leading near the end. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Hamilton positive for COVID-19, will miss F1’s Sakhir GP

SAKHIR, Bahrain — Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has tested positive… Continue reading

In this Dec. 19, 2019 file photo, the advertising label of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, shines at their headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Leaders of the OPEC cartel are meeting virtually to decide how much oil their countries should produce as the coronavirus stifles demand for fuel. They’re expected to extend production cuts into the new year in an effort to boost prices. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak, File)
OPEC talks on production hit snag as pandemic clouds outlook

FRANKFURT — The OPEC oil producers’ cartel was to push ahead with… Continue reading

Vancouver Whitecaps forward Fredy Montero celebrates after scoring a goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy during the second half of an MLS soccer match in Portland, Ore., Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. The Vancouver Whitecaps are hanging on to several of their young players and continuing contract talks with two veterans, including Montero. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Steve Dipaola
Whitecaps exercise options on seven players, ‘continuing discussions’ with Montero

Whitecaps exercise options on seven players, ‘continuing discussions’ with Montero

Toronto FC forward Pablo Piatti (7) cuts past Vancouver Whitecaps defender Ali Adnan (53) during first half MLS Canadian Championship soccer action in Toronto on Friday, August 21, 2020. Barring a new agreement, Toronto FC is parting ways with designated player Pablo Piatti. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Toronto FC looks for new designated player, opts not to pick up Piatti option

Toronto FC looks for new designated player, opts not to pick up Piatti option

Hamilton Forge FC players celebrate their win over CD Olimpia's during Scotiabank CONCACAF League 2019 action in Hamilton, Ont., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. After a season that has taken it from Hamilton to Charlottetown, El Salvador and Panama, Forge FC hopes the Dominican Republic is the last stop on the way to the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power
Forge FC just one win away from booking ticket to CONCACAF Champions League

Forge FC just one win away from booking ticket to CONCACAF Champions League

A police officer patrols near the Olympic Symbol being transported on a barge in the Odaiba section Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, in Tokyo. The five Olympic rings are back in Tokyo Bay. They were removed for maintenance four months ago shortly after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed until next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Olympic rings back in Tokyo Bay; a sign of hope in pandemic

Olympic rings back in Tokyo Bay; a sign of hope in pandemic

Most Read