California power outages hit hard for elderly, those with medical needs

Most of the nearly 2 million people in Northern California who lost electricity during planned blackouts this week had power restored by Friday, according to Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility.

But in many communities, vulnerable residents were grappling with issues such as disrupted health-related routines and equipment or the loss of costly perishable foods in their homes.

In many poor households, or the homes of people who have special health equipment, residents simply didn’t receive good information on how to prepare for California’s unprecedented plans to prevent the spread of potentially deadly wildfires, reports say.


In this Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 photo, Los Angeles City firefighters battle the Saddleridge fire near homes in Sylmar, Calif. (Associated Press)

“You don’t know until it happens how it’s really going to affect you,” Tara Drolma, 72, told the Los Angeles Times.

“You don’t know until it happens how it’s really going to affect you.”

— Tara Drolma, 72, California resident using a wheelchair and heart monitor

After her home lost power this week, she needed to decide whether to use the remaining power in an emergency battery to boost her electric wheelchair or her heart monitor, she said.

“It’s not a little thing,” Crystal Markytan, director of social services for Lake County, told the L.A. Times. “You don’t realize how dependent you are on power.”

PG&E was able to restore power to much of Northern California after workers inspected power lines to make sure they were safe and weren’t likely to spark fires. The utility said it found 30 instances of weather-related damage to its equipment during the shutdown.

By Friday evening, PG&E said it had restored power to 97 percent of the 738,000 homes and businesses affected by the deliberate blackout that began Wednesday. Those sites represented about 2 million power-using people, it said.

About 21,000 customers remained without power. Safety inspections of utility lines and other equipment were expected to resume Saturday morning, the company said.

“It’s not a little thing. You don’t realize how dependent you are on power.”

— Crystal Markytan, director of social services, Lake County, Calif.

Some people in the largely rural Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties and in Northern California's wine country counties were in their third day without electricity.

Butte County is where a fire started by PG&E equipment last year decimated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. It’s also home to the highest percentage of medically vulnerable utility customers in the state, the Desert Sun of Palm Springs reported.


In this Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 photo, a firefighter waits for water as the Saddleridge fire flares up near homes in Sylmar, Calif. (Associated Press)

Shelby Boston, director of employment and social services for Butte County, praised the county’s preparation work for the outages, telling the newspaper only two people had called in recent days for assistance with finding an alternative power supply or a need to relocate.

Dialysis patients posed a special concern in many areas. In one PG&E service area, three DaVita KidneyCare centers had closed and three others were running on generators because of the power shutoffs, according to the Desert Sun – meaning many patients needed to make alternative plans.

“Even just going to a different place than you’re used to, or not having the supplies or climate control you’d like in your home can be very stressful for patients,” Wendy Aranda, a renal dietitian for DaVita based in Thousand Oaks, told the newspaper.

“Even just going to a different place than you’re used to, or not having the supplies or climate control you’d like in your home can be very stressful for patients.”

— Wendy Aranda, renal dietitian, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

PG&E faced hostility and second-guessing over the shut-offs, which prompted runs on supplies like coolers and generators and forced institutions to shut down.

Ryan Fisher, a partner in consumer goods and retail practice at global consultancy A.T. Kearney, estimated $100 million in $200 million in fresh food was likely lost because of the outages along with $30 million a day in consumer spending.

PG&E cast the blackouts as a matter of public safety to prevent the kind of blazes that have killed scores of people over the past couple of years, destroyed thousands of homes, and ran up tens of billions of dollars in claims that drove the company into bankruptcy.


The utility suggested it was already seeing the wisdom of its decision borne out as gusts topping 77 mph (122 kph) raked some hilltops where wildfire risk was extremely high.

Utility CEO Bill Johnson promised if future wind events require similar shut-offs, the utility will "do better" at communicating with customers. It's unacceptable that its website crashed, maps were inconsistent and call centers were overloaded, Johnson said.

"We were not adequately prepared," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.