Coming to grips with planned power outage

Jada Brotman & Jack Durham
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The Arcata City Council will receive an update tonight, Oct. 16 on how the city responded to last week’s power outage and how it can do better during future outages. The council meets at 6 p.m. in the Council Chamber, 736 F St., Arcata.

The council’s discussion will likely mirror those of community members and business owners, who have been reflecting on the planned power outage and how they can better prepare for, or maybe even prevent, future outages.

‘Precautionary measure’

Pacific Gas & Electric sent out a notification Monday morning, Oct. 7 warning that due to high winds, it might shut down power to much of Northern California, but Humboldt wasn’t included in the list of affected counties.

Then, at about 1:20 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8, PG&E issued a press release stating  that it would be shutting off electrical power early Wednesday morning, Oct. 9, shortly after midnight for 34 counties, including Humboldt.

In past years, the utility company would have simply kept the power on and would have responded to downed power lines. But given the deadly wildfires in recent years, PG&E isn’t taking any chances.

In October of 2017, the Tubbs Fire resulted in 22 casualties and burned 5,643 structures in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties. Entire residential neighbors were wiped out in Santa Rosa. Last November, the Camp Fire nearly wiped out the town of Paradise, killed 85 people and destroyed 18,804 structures. 

Both of these fires were fueled by strong winds and dry conditions. Similar conditions existed last week in Northern California.

“PG&E initiated a PSPS [Public Safety Power Shutoff] on Wednesday due to hot, windy weather across its service area. Wind gusts in excess of 70 miles per hour were recorded Wednesday evening and into Thursday,” stated a press release from PG&E.

The power was shut off to portions of 34 northern, central and coastal counties, affecting electric service for nearly 800,000 customers, according to PG&E. 

“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event. We understand the

effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations.

Preparing for the shutoff

With advanced notice of the shutoff, many Humboldters prepared for the event by filling their vehicles with gas and buying ice and food supplies. Lines began to develop at local gas stations as people fueled up their vehicles and gas cans for their generators. 

At about 7 p.m. there were more than two dozen vehicles at the Renner station at the north end of Eureka, and the line was growing by the minute. Some residents reported waiting in line 45 minutes to get gas in Arcata.

Lights off

As announced, the power went out after midnight from about 12:30 to 3:30 a.m. Humboldters awoke Wednesday, Oct. 9  to powerless homes. Some went without coffee.

In Arcata, most businesses closed for the day. The Arcata Plaza resembled Christmas day, with most buildings shuttered and the lights off.

Among the exceptions in the downtown area was the North Coast Co-op, which kept its Arcata and Eureka stores open throughout the day.

“It was insanity,” said Co-op General Manager Melanie Bettenhausen. “The lines were down the aisles.” She credited Co-op employees for a hard day’s work serving the higher-than-usual number of customers.

With several other stores closed, business was brisk, with Co-op sales up about 35 percent. All perishable items, including cheese, meat, dairy and frozen foods, were on sale at 50 percent off.

Bettenhausen said that the Arcata store has generators to run the registers, computers and some lights, but not its refrigeration system. When there’s a power outage, the store is usually able to obtain a refrigerated truck, she said. This allows the store to weather a storm and save its perishable merchandise.  However, because almost the entire northern section of the state was going to be without power, there were no refrigeration trucks available.

Bettenhausen said that on Thursday, Oct. 10, Recology delivered two large dumpsters, which employees spent the day filling with perishable food. She said the two stores were still calculating their food losses, which are expected to be tens of thousands of dollars.”I’d be happy if it came in under $50,000,” she said. Some of the loss may be covered by insurance.

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Out in Glendale, business was brisk at  Murphy’s Market. All perishable items were half off, and customers were gobbling up canned goods and other supplies. The store quickly ran out of ice, as did many other retailers.

Although the power outage only lasted about 24 hours, there was uncertainty about when the power would come back. Some media reports indicated that the power could be out for a week. The uncertainty created some anxiousness, with residents not knowing how long they should plan to be without electricity.

‘Festive and fun’

While some business lamented their forced closures and loss of business, others made the most of the situation.

Gene Joyce, owner of Arcata Exchange, found the atmosphere on the Plaza “festive and fun” on Wednesday, as Arcata inhabitants flocked to the downtown area in large numbers. 

Business was strong, as he provided flashlights for customers to see his wares. With the use of a rotary phone, the line was kept open, and deliveries were made. However, on Thursday, the power start-up disrupted the shop’s point-of-sale system, and Joyce was forced to spend several hours restarting it. 

However, he applauded the community’s management of the situation, citing Hensel’s Hardware in particular as being helpful.

Ceva Courtemanche, owner of Hensel’s Ace Hardware in Arcata, said the store sold out of batteries around 4 p.m. on Wednesday. She and her crew drove up to Medford, Oregon, stocked up on generators, flashlights, and batteries, made it back to Arcata at 3 a.m. Thursday, and restocked the shelves for the store’s opening at 7:30 a.m. 

“As a hardware store we feel it’s our obligation to have this stuff,” she said, and intends to keep larger supplies on hand of lanterns that double as cell phone chargers, batteries, and necessary hardware.

Joyce wondered if perhaps the Arcata Community Center could be opened during future outages as a safety place. “Blue Lake Casino set out tables and chairs and kept the lights on,” he said. “Maybe the City of Arcata could do the same thing.”

Lack of notification

Some people complained that PG&E failed to notify the public in a timely manner.

Lush Newton, owner of The Art Center on the Plaza, said she thought PG&E’s handling of the situation was poor. “It was bullshit,” she said. “The least they could have done was given us an automated call letting us know what was happening. I had to find out last minute from an employee.”   

The Art Center’s hours were curtailed and sales were down.

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Conserving water, delivering food

During the outage, residents were encouraged to conserve water.

“The City of Arcata is recommending that all Arcata residents conserve water and minimize sewer use during this time,” stated a press release from the City of Arcata issued during the outage. “City water or sewer service has not been affected by the power shutdown, but conservation efforts will help maintain services to residents until power is restored.”

 During the outage, PG&E opened two “Community Relief Centers” where residents could go to stay warm and use power charging station to keep their phones and other devices going. One center was at the Redwood Acres Fairgrounds,3750 Harris St. in Eureka. The other was College of the Redwoods, at 7351 Tompkins Hill Rd. in Eureka. 

Arcata House Partnership, at its annex at 501 Ninth St. in Arcata,  offered lunch and dinner to community members in need.

Arcata House Partnership and the Arcata Police Department delivered meals to community members with mobility or transportation challenges, according to a City of Arcata press release. 

Waiting in line for gas

Some people waited until the day of the outage to fuel their vehicles. In Blue Lake, the line of vehicles waiting to buy gas at the Blue Lake Rancheria Play Station 777 stretched all the way back to the roundabout on Blue Lake Boulevard. Motorists had to wait about half an hour to fuel up and were limited to no more than $20 in gas. There were also long lines at the Renner in Arcata.

Initial reports suggested that the power outage could extend for days, with some sources suggesting power would be off for nearly a week. But good news came later that evening, when PG&E announced that the power would come back on either late Wednesday, or early Thursday.

For most of Humboldt, power came back on early Thursday morning.

According to PG&E, there were no fires related to any of the company’s lines or facilities during the power outage.

School closures

Numerous schools closed due to the outage, including Humboldt State University, which was closed on Wednesday and even on Thursday, after power was restored.

“University staff will be conducting safety checks, re-granting key access, and re-opening secured spaces throughout the day,” stated a press release issued Thursday, Oct. 10 by HSU. “The priority will be campus residence halls as well as services related to health and safety. Early re-opening efforts will also focus on gathering places such as the University Center and the University Library. Later today, staff will check on all classrooms and labs prior to classes resuming on Friday.”

Other schools and school districts  that were closed included Southern Humboldt USD, Big Lagoon School/District, Trinity Valley Elementary, Fuente Nueva Charter School, Pacific View Charter School, Cuddeback School/District, Coastal Grove Charter School, Fortuna Elementary School District, Rio Dell School District, Trinidad School/District, Scotia School/District, Loleta School District, McKinleyville Union School District and HCOE Student Programs (includes all Glen Paul programs at Fortuna and Peninsula.)





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