Blackout preparation inconsistent across state : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Blackout preparation inconsistent across state

Posted at 11:12 p.m. PDT Saturday, May 19, 2001


Despite growing fears since January that California could be rocked by repeated blackouts this summer, many authorities are still scrambling to devise contingency plans and readiness varies significantly from county to county.

State officials haven't provided a uniform strategy for how to respond to outages, arguing that disaster management is usually best left to local agencies. But an informal Mercury News survey of 15 cities and counties across the state turned up wide differences in the extent of preparations, with some officials regarding blackouts as little more than an inconvenience.

``There is a sort of false sense of security'' among many local officials, said John Nelson, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which has been conferring with county emergency personnel about how to brace for blackouts.

A few cities and counties surveyed had compiled lists of residents who depend on electrical medical equipment, made detailed maps showing which parts of their communities would be hit during rotating blackouts and written emergency plans tailored specifically to outages.

Some also had identified buildings the public could use to get cool on sweltering days when the power was off, provided tips to residents on coping with blackouts and determined the location of every elevator where someone might get stuck during an outage.

But other communities -- including some in the Bay Area -- had either failed to take such precautions or trailed far behind other areas in those efforts.

That inconsistency stems partly from uncertainties over how many outages might occur this summer and the fact that the Bay Area and other cool regions are relatively less vulnerable to heat-related problems during power failures. The quality of the blackout-block data that the state's major utilities have provided cities and counties also varies substantially.

Moreover, not everyone agrees that an occasional blackout is worth fretting about.``A power outage for an hour or two in and of itself is not an emergency,'' said Lucien Canton, director of emergency services for San Francisco, where efforts to deal with electrical disruptions exceed those of some communities surveyed, but lag behind others. ``We don't want to draw so much attention to the blackouts that we neglect our primary job, which is preparing for major emergencies like earthquakes.''

Others, however, view the threat of recurring outages with alarm. ``I'm telling my folks it's time to panic,'' said Dan Smith, director of regional affairs for the Association of California Water Agencies, which use electricity to pump water. ``It's time to prepare for the worst.''

The Mercury News questioned officials in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Napa, Mendocino, Fresno, Merced, Kern, Riverside and Imperial counties as well as in San Jose and Indian Wells just south of Palm Springs. These are some of the differences in preparations the survey found:

Identifying people on electric medical devices.

The impact of blackouts on the elderly and disabled is of particular concern, because so many of them live alone and rely on medical or other equipment that use electricity.

``I'm so worried,'' said Gloria Nicolau, whose 98-year-old mother, Leonor Nicolau, is required by her doctor to have air conditioning and her electric oxygen machine on at all times in their San Jose home. They have a backup oxygen tank. But if the power goes off, Gloria Nicolau said, ``I don't know what I'll do -- maybe just fan her with my hand.''

Authorities in San Mateo, Napa and Riverside counties said they have made extensive lists of such people. But officials in most other places -- including Santa Clara County -- said they only have lists of nursing homes and other establishments that serve the elderly or disabled.

San Jose has been trying to identify such people through neighborhood volunteers, said Frannie Edwards-Winslow, director of emergency preparedness. But she added that the effort was ``very scattered,'' with volunteers active in only a small part of the city.

Making blackout-block maps.

Many cities and counties want to know the precise boundaries of the so-called blocks affected by each phase of rotating outages so they can send police there to help prevent accidents at blacked-out intersections or other problems.

Local emergency officials generally have been able to obtain some block data from their utilities. But some Northern California officials said they've been able to make better maps than their counterparts in Southern California, because the data they received from PG&E is much more detailed than that provided by Southern California Edison.

While some jurisdictions reported problems making PG&E's computerized data work with their software, PG&E's data``is a lot more specific,'' said David White, energy coordinator for Kern County, which is served by both PG&E and Edison. ``They are definitely making an effort to give us more information than Edison.''

The city council in Indian Wells has grown so frustrated over its failure to obtain more detailed block boundaries that they voted Thursday to let the mayor subpoena Edison for the data. ``Without that information, it's like planning in the blind,'' said Troy Butzlaff, Indian Well's assistant city manager. ``We don't have enough resources to put sheriff's deputies at every corner.''

Edison agreed at the Thursday meeting to hand over the detailed data to Indian Wells in the near future and will consider making similar material available to other communities, if they promise not to give it to anyone else, said Steve Conroy, a spokesman for the utility. He added that Edison fears criminals might misuse the information.

Preparing blackout-specific emergency plans.

Most of the officials surveyed said they saw no reason to make one, because their existing plans for earthquakes and other disasters provide sufficient direction about what to do during emergencies. But others disagreed.

This month, Mendocino County published a list of ``response guidelines for power emergencies,'' which refers to the possibility of a widespread power-grid failure that could result in extensive blackouts and ``leave agencies without power for days.''In addition, Kern County officials said they have almost finished writing a similar plan and Napa County authorities are considering doing one.

Designating cool buildings, monitoring elevators and preparing residents.

Riverside County has identified 163 buildings that could be used by elderly or other residents to cool off if a power failure shuts off their air conditioning. San Jose, Indian Wells and Napa County also had a list of such places. Most of the other communities surveyed hadn't identified any buildings for this purpose.

Aside from Riverside County, most cities and counties checked also hadn't drawn up lists of elevators where passengers could become trapped during outages. And while some were providing tips about how to deal with blackouts, such efforts appeared to be lagging in such places as Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

State, federal and local emergency experts who were interviewed generally agreed that it's hard to tell how much preparation is warranted, especially given the widely varying estimates for how many blackout days California could experience this summer.

``I don't think anyone knows what it's going to be like,'' concluded Brent Harrington, president of the Regional Council of Rural Counties, who until recently was administrative officer for Calaveras County. ``It's that uncertainty that's more frustrating than anything.''

Nevertheless, others consider it only prudent to assume the worst. ``It's going to be horrendous this summer,'' predicted Yvonne Hunter of the League of California Cities. ``The only thing we can do is be as prepared as we can.''

Contact Steve Johnson at or (408) 920-5043.

-- Swissrose (, May 20, 2001


Thanks Swissrose.

-- David Williams (, May 21, 2001.

This inconsistency and lack of central control from Sacramento will only lead to a furtherance of the already dire situation in that state.

-- Uncle Fred (, May 21, 2001.

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