It’s been almost a week since PG&E’s “public safety power shut-off” affected more than 700,000 customers, including about 14,000 customers in San Mateo County. Although many Coastsiders were without power for less than 24 hours — far less than initially proposed — the de-energization event disrupted residents’ lives and businesses for days.
Across the coast and across the state, many are upset with the utility company’s changing plans and question whether such an expansive shut-off was necessary.
Days before the outage was scheduled to occur, gas station lines spilled onto the streets and people stocked up on water and batteries. Cafes ordered less food and New Leaf Community Market scheduled trucks to take perishable goods to other stores.
The city activated its emergency operations center the day before the scheduled outage, albeit on a small scale. Caltrans vacillated on whether the Devil’s Slide tunnels would remain open. Agencies discussed whether to reschedule meetings, and school officials planned for a day that resembled 18th century education.
“I went to the store. It was a madhouse,” said Hope Dante, a resident of Cañada Cove, who returned with cat food and other supplies. “I mean, everybody was nice, but everybody was getting supplies and preparing.”
On the morning of Oct. 9, people waited and worried. Businesses closed early or didn’t open at all because Phase 2 of the shut-off was scheduled to commence at noon.
“I’m still in denial,” Cafe Society and Ebb Tide Cafe owner Harpo Marx said hours before the scheduled shut-off. “I’m hoping it might change last-minute.”
When the clock struck noon and the power was still on, residents heard the shut-off would occur at 1 p.m. But the time continued to drift later into the day.
“There is nothing you can do about it,” said Half Moon Bay resident Katie Murdock, as she sipped coffee with a friend on Main Street early that morning.
Finally, the power company told local officials to expect most of the coast to be without power between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. The lights didn’t go dark until 11:30 p.m.
Getting bad info
The inconsistent information was “frustrating at the government level,” Half Moon Bay’s Public Works Director John Doughty said. He was named acting city manager while superiors were away. “It’s no less frustrating for the businesses and residents trying to figure out how to get along with their life.”
PG&E officials told the Review before the shut-off that changing weather conditions affect the timing of planned outages. CalFire officials said the weather was concerning in San Mateo County even though the winds didn’t reach the surface on the Coastside. As if to provide evidence, a small fire broke out near San Bruno Mountain. It was contained in less than 24 hours.
Thursday morning, Oct. 10, began with Coastsiders in the dark. There were traffic jams on Highway 1 due to lights that only blinked red. There were deputies monitoring and directing traffic in some places, but not at every coastal pinch point.
One vexing problem was the effect the shutdown had on internet connections. Comcast acknowledged that even people who had power might have lost their connections.
“While the power to your home may be on, parts of our network that provide your Xfinity service may be in areas where the commercial power is unavailable, thereby leading to a disruption of service,” according to a blog on the company website.
Locals helped one another through the challenges. At Senior Coastsiders, staff connected with people who rely on oxygen machines before the shut-off to ensure they were prepared. While CERTs weren’t activated, members checked on their elderly neighbors. Puente de la Costa Sur, which had generators, opened its doors to Pescadero Elementary School teachers to make coffee. Joe Freitas, the manager of a Chevron in Moss Beach, kept his employees working even though they couldn’t sell gas.
Through it all, there was a steady stream of people coming to the PG&E makeshift resource center on Main Street. The center had electric power and water, but no Wi-Fi.
Janet Steele charged her phone and snacked on a doughnut in the tent behind Pasta Moon with her dog Gracie. She was worried about her food spoiling and having enough money to buy more. She kept a positive attitude, though.
“Some people are just angry,” she said. “But it doesn’t change the outcome.”
In Pescadero, many stores remained open with limited services and slower business. Duarte’s Tavern was one of the few places with full power that day thanks to its generators. Many people in the town came by the popular eatery for breakfast or to use their laptops on Thursday morning. Puente’s Pescadero office remained open, but the organization had to cancel its programming for the remainder of the week.
“We’re trying to get by,” Arcangeli Grocery Manager Humberto Perez said on Thursday. “We’re open to be there for whoever needs something.”
Schools enlighten in darkness
Schools were in session across the coast, and staff and students seemed to be taking the inconvenience in stride.
“People have been educating without power for thousands of years,” said John Nazar, principal of Half Moon Bay High School.
As if to prove the point, one science teacher came dressed as history’s Marie Curie, spoke with an accent and stayed in character. Her class was “discovering” electron probability.
“I just thought I’d make it fun,” teacher Marsenne Kendall said.
“It’s pretty much a normal day,” said Judy Cabuag, the office manager at Pescadero Elementary School. “The kids think it’s kind of cool.”
The lights flickered back on Thursday evening and Friday morning ending the PG&E shut-off for most locals.
Inability to access PG&E’s website throughout the week, the continued delay of the de-energization event and confusion on when the power would return contributed to the shut-off’s disorder.
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson defended the decision to shut down power for hundreds of thousands of people, but acknowledged on Thursday, “We were not adequately prepared.”
Libby Leyden and Clay Lambert contributed to this story.