On Tuesday, PG&E announced that nearly 34 counties, including cities from Pacifica to Pescadero, could be subject to a planned power shut-off because of a dry and strong wind event forecast for later this week. The National Weather Service also issued a red flag warning due to increased fire danger for much of the area surrounding the Coastside.
The warnings come in the wake of other Bay Area power safety shut-offs that have raised concerns about communication to local agencies and customers.
At press time, it was not clear whether the power company would, in fact, turn off the power to the Coastside and other areas in the warning zone. However, a Caltrans spokesman said transportation officials would close the Devil’s Slide tunnels for 24 hours beginning at noon on Wednesday. That is because the tunnels require electricity to power internal exhaust fans. The announcement of the closure of the tunnels was an ominous indication of other potential shutdowns.
The utility company’s analysts and meteorologists will consider several factors including wind gusts, high temperatures and dry conditions before shutting off power, officials say. PG&E officials said they will communicate with local stakeholders and PG&E customers through texts, emails and phone calls with as much advance notice as possible.
A community resource center will be open at 8 a.m. on Wednesday and stay open during daylight hours in Half Moon Bay at the new Pasta Moon location, 845 Main St. Restrooms, bottled water, charging stations and air-conditioned seating will be accessible for up to 100 people.
The San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services was notified on Sunday, along with other state agencies, about the possible outage. Since then official information has been difficult to come by. PG&E’s shutdown alert page was down for much of Tuesday.
“It should be stated that PG&E is the responsible party to keep people up-to-date with information, but to further enhance the message we will send out an SMC Alert with information from PG&E,” said Kevin Rose, manager of the Office of Emergency Services.
The city of Half Moon Bay has backup generators for government buildings. The city government found itself in much the same position as its citizens.
“At this point, we are preparing for a shutdown,” said Public Works Director John Doughty on Tuesday.
Doughty said the city will likely open the Emergency Operation Center to coordinate with first-responders and the county late Tuesday.
“The best answer is plan for the worst; hope for the best. But at some point the power may be off,” Doughty said.
Cabrillo Unified School District and La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District officials said, if the Coastside experiences an outage, the districts will provide updates to families on the status of their schools. The Coastside County Water District and Montara Water and Sanitary District said a loss of power wouldn’t interrupt water services.
Learning from past outages
Two weeks ago, 1,400 customers in Sonoma and Napa counties were affected by a planned outage. Local officials expressed concern about the way the utility company communicated how many people would experience power loss.
In a matter of days leading up to the event, PG&E went from saying tens of thousands in Sonoma County should prepare for a shut-off to only cutting power for 700 customers in the county.
“It’s all dependent on the weather — and the weather kept changing,” PG&E spokeswoman Deana Contreras said. She also said unrelated power outages caused additional confusion.
Contreras said they have received feedback about communication concerns and are working with local authorities in the area to improve in the future.
Chris Godley, director of the Department of Emergency Management, said Sonoma County had been preparing for a de-energization event and how it would communicate with residents ahead of time. In addition to working with PG&E at a policy level, the county has worked across agencies to create consistent messaging and connect with vulnerable residents.
“We want to help people through being afraid of a disaster and moving into empowerment,” he said. “... So, when these things pop up, like this week, a large segment of our community is ready to go.”
It is unknown exactly how many people and what areas will be affected this week, but more than 14,000 in San Mateo County could be impacted, according to the power company.
If PG&E decides to cut power, officials said customers who may lose power should receive alerts 24 to 48 hours in advance, as well as just before a shut-off event.
To prepare, the utility company recommends that customers update their contact information, keep devices charged, fill up their vehicle gas tanks and have an emergency supply kit ready.
Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, said PG&E is “playing catch up” in its public safety power shut-off program. Leading the state, Wara said, is San Diego Gas and Electric, which started a shut-off program a few years after the devastating Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires in 2007.
Although San Diego Gas and Electric covers much less territory than PG&E and has fewer trees to tangle with lines, Wara said, PG&E can and is learning from the Southern California utility company’s example.
“(San Diego Gas and Electric) are never done with their community safety,” Wara said. “Their view is, we’ve reduced our chance of a bad event by like 95 percent but there’s still 5 percent. … We need to keep working and keep improving and shrinking that number and learning, and that’s the thing that’s really important.”