Alone in the Dark in the Bay Area

People were on their own as their homes and businesses lost power.

A darkened freezer section of a convenience store.
Noah Berger / AP

Earlier this week, Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents to mitigate the risk of fires. The city of Berkeley put out some vital information for those who might be affected: “If you are power-dependent for medical reasons and in a potential shutoff area, please use your own resources to relocate to an unaffected area,” the city said. “If unable to relocate and power loss will cause immediate life threat, call 911 for transport to an Emergency Room.” In other words: People were, for the most part, on their own as their homes and businesses were cast into darkness.

In a life-threatening emergency, we have first responders. But with the planet getting hotter and storms getting stronger and planned outages and massive fires and terrible floods the new normal, people and communities are largely expected to be their own second responders, their own mitigation team, their own cavalry. This was true in the Bay Area as the lights went out.

With crisis comes confusion. PG&E gave the 2 million–plus customers in the potential affected zone just a few days’ notice that high winds would necessitate sweeping outages. Although I live in the zone, and despite paying a hefty PG&E bill each month, I never received an email, call, or text message from the utility letting me know what to expect. I thought my lights would go off, but they didn’t. That’s a relief, of course, but I’m not sure why I was spared.

The utility was miserable at informing people if they were at risk of having their power turned off, and then miserable at informing people when it would be turned off and for how long. Communication was “fragile and unstable at times,” a PG&E official admitted at a news conference this week. “We accept it, we own it, we will do better.”

Local government scrambled to respond, too. There was no preplanning, for instance, on how to keep the Caldecott Tunnel, a major commuter artery cutting through the Berkeley hills, up and running. Caltrans officials had to rush in portable generators. Several agencies sent text and phone alerts to local residents to try to keep them up to date, but people had to have signed up for those alerts in advance.

When the power went out at homes and apartment complexes and businesses and schools, the richest region of the richest country on earth went dark. It was a mess. The elderly were stranded in upper-floor housing units, their elevators out of service. People who use wheelchairs, sleep-apnea machines, hearing aids, and respirators—as well as electric cars and e-bikes and computers and cellphones, and on and on—struggled to find portable generators or to move to places unaffected by the outages. Mothers sent around spreadsheets of neighbors who were ready and willing to store breast milk in their freezers.

For most people, the outages were an inconvenience. But for some, they meant a day of lost wages, because no power meant no work, or no power meant no school meant no child care meant no work. For others, it meant a freezer and a refrigerator full of rotting groceries. Those who stocked up on batteries and ice had to pay for these expenses out of pocket. And the power outages seem to have caused at least one death, of a person dependent on an oxygen machine.

The official response was some combination of resignation and frustration. No utility workers went door-to-door to advise and aid customers sitting in the dark. No economic resources were made readily available to the hundreds of thousands of cash-strapped families in the outage zone. PG&E advised people to make an emergency plan, rather than having an emergency plan ready for its customers. It opened just a scant few assistance centers, which closed at night, for families to recharge electronics and use the bathroom.

The Bay Area experienced a man-made crisis (a blackout) designed to avoid a far worse man-made crisis (a fire) made more likely by a far worse man-made crisis (climate change). It was, roughly speaking, what happens everywhere in the United States when disaster strikes. Communities find out that civic leaders failed to plan ahead, and can’t seem to figure out who is responsible for what. A devastating inequality is revealed: The rich are far more capable of protecting themselves during a crisis and have the resources to rebound afterward.

With a changing climate, disasters are likely to come more often. They are likely to be more deadly, and harder to contain. And more people are likely to wait in the dark.