Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

If the lights go out



PG&E is sending out notices warning that in the event of summer heat-wind events posing an extreme fire danger, it will shut down electrical power in certain regions. Power will be shut down not just in regions directly affected by high risk of wildfire but in potentially unrelated areas for 48 hours or more. This is an element of electrical power transmission, which for technical reasons, may require an adjacent, unthreatened area to have its power shut down. Accordingly, a fire 20 miles away may result in your losing power for an undetermined period of time.

Given that summer/autumn heat and wind events can occur repeatedly, we might be facing multiple, prolonged power outages during California's annual fire season. The season normally runs from June until December but in reality, remains until we get a soaking rain.

How will this impact your life? Let's start with the obvious: no refrigeration for groceries, loss of air conditioning, no fans or light after sundown. For a few hours of outage, loss of power is an inconvenience requiring use of flashlights, lanterns, and candles. A prolonged outage is serious.

If you don't have a full tank of gas, you're probably not going to get any as gas pumps won't be operational. Most gas stations don't have emergency generators to operate gas pumps, ATMs or registers to process purchases, whether via cash or credit/debit cards. That also applies to grocery stores or pharmacies, which may only have power for food/medication preservation for a limited time.

Emergency power is designed to provide lighting to assist customers' departure from the store, not for operations to permit continued shopping. You can also expect financial services to be interrupted such as electronic deposits/payments.

Small businesses are going to take financial hits as are service employees, such as servers at local restaurants. Many such employees work part time at multiple jobs and depend upon income derived from tips to carry them through the week. Any business without emergency generators will be closed, and most that do have such generators won't be able to carry on for a prolonged outage. Few people or businesses have the ability to safely store significant quantities of fuel for a prolonged outage. Outages of 48 or more hours will present safety issues as people hoard fuel and use haphazard fuel-storage techniques. I foresee more than a few accidental fires and medical emergencies.

Other inconvenient facts: Those with all-electrical appliances, such as stoves, won't be able to use improvised methods to light their stove, unlike gas appliances which can be ignited by hand. These events will be occurring during heat waves, so your living space will become uncomfortably warm over time without fans or air conditioning. Emergency medical services will likely experience increased calls due to heat injuries, especially among the elderly and infirm.

We expect essential services to be prepared, especially hospitals, nursing homes and utilities that provide water and sewer. Without water, an inconvenience becomes a life-threatening situation during prolonged heat events. Some people will have water for a few days; few will have sufficient water for a week, especially apartment dwellers, due to storage requirements. How long will local water systems/pumps and wastewater treatment plant emergency power systems hold up? Do they have adequate emergency fuel supplies to last for a week? If their emergency system fails, do they have backup systems?

Nursing homes and hospitals are supposed to have emergency plans to include evacuation. Unfortunately, all too often that plan consists of evacuating patients to another local facility down the road or a hospital. A regional loss-of-power event could be sufficiently widespread to nullify any plan to move patients to any local facility. Meeting the minimum requirements set down by state law in those cases will be catastrophically insufficient. This was a lesson learned after Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, where many lives were lost due to insufficient evacuation planning.

Civil disorder is a real probability during a prolonged loss-of-power event. When power outages occur in urban areas for only a few hours, there seems to be an element willing to take advantage of the darkness (and non-operating security cameras) to pillage their community. When power is restored, you can expect continued unrest and shortages as people decide to stock up on everything. I lived through the gas shortages of the 1970s and witnessed long lines and short tempers.

Most fire and police departments don't maintain on-site fuel points for their vehicles and equipment, a result of efficiency measures taken to reduce costs and compliance requirements for environmental laws. They buy their gas for patrol cars and fire engines at a local gas station like everyone else. Unless that station or others are equipped with emergency power systems (I suspect they aren't), local emergency services are in danger of running out of gas, especially given the likelihood of increased demands for service during a prolonged power outage.

Prolonged "public safety power outages" are more than an inconvenience—they pose a far greater hazard to life than a localized major wildfire and could cost billions in economic losses to California. Is your community prepared? Δ

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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