Power shutoff could start in Berkeley at 8 p.m.; shops, schools prepare

Sproul Plaza is usually crowded around lunch time but was eerily empty Wednesday. Because of the planned PG&E power shutoff, UC Berkeley canceled all classes. Photo: Scott Saul

Update 8:38 p.m.: What did Karl Marx write about “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”? He can’t have prefigured utility PG&E’s experience with its website. At the 6 p.m. press conference Wednesday evening, chief customer officer Laurie Giammona announced a new website where California residents could find information about which addresses would be affected by the power shutdown and expected times for restoration of service.

At 8:20 p.m. tonight, @PGE4Me tweeted the new site. It returned a page that helpfully said: “There seems to be an issue. The story can’t be loaded.” Within six minutes, the utility’s tweet was taken down.

But frabjous day, at 8:36 p.m. a Twitter user posted a working address (for now):

Update to the update: that working address also seems to be collapsing under the load. Berkeleyside’s attempts to load the new map are working perhaps one out of three times at the moment.


Update 6:50 p.m.: At a press conference in San Francisco on Wednesday evening, officials from PG&E said high winds are still expected in the East Bay. The phase 2 power shutdown — which includes parts of Berkeley — is still planned for some time on Wednesday night, but it might be later than the 8 p.m. announced earlier in the day. According to PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel, the critical time for high winds will span tonight through noon Thursday.

Quizzed about the reasons for the shutdown, Sumeet Singh, Vice President of the Asset and Risk Management and Community Wildfire Safety Program, said “the environment that coexists with our electrical assets” has changed completely. Pressed about past failures by the utility, Singh said his focus was on solving problems now.

“We don’t spend time looking at the past. We are where we are… We’re doing everything we can,” he said. “We can all Monday morning quarterback this.”

Chief Customer Officer Laurie Giammona said PG&E would announce a new website for information about the power shutdown after the press conference (as of this update, there’s still no new website). PG&E’s website this week has frequently been unavailable for people seeking details of the shutdown. The new website “is robust,” said Giammona. “We are confident.”

Original story: After Berkeley waited all day for the lights to go out, residents are still in the dark about what the near-future holds.

The “public safety safety power shutoff,” most recently slated for noon Wednesday, has been delayed until 8 p.m. PG&E said the utility pushed back the start time because of “changes to the weather forecast,” bringing strong winds and their fire risk down to the Bay Area later than expected. The first phase of the unprecedented outage was completed earlier Wednesday, with power going off for half a million people in the state’s northern counties.

When electricity is finally turned off, most of Berkeley is not expected to be affected. Swaths of the hills and North Berkeley are the parts of the city located within the planned outage map. Throughout Alameda County, a total of 32,680 PG&E customers will be affected by the potentially days-long outage, according to a news release from the utility sent at 1:20 p.m. The “customer” figure refers to PG&E account holders — far more individuals could ultimately feel the impact.

The city of Berkeley also warned at 3:40 p.m. of a current high fire danger in the Berkeley Hills, continuing to recommend that anyone with medical or accessibility needs evacuate immediately. Everyone else in the area should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, the city said. The Berkeley Police Department has added extra patrols in the hills for the planned outage, and has asked residents in affected areas to take steps to make streets passable for first responders.

EBMUD is asking some customers in some affected areas to conserve water in order for the utility to maintain supplies in water storage tanks. Its map showing where this applies — areas where EBMUD has staged backup generators to supply water to storage tanks located in higher elevations — currently only covers a very small section of Berkeley.

Despite the delayed start, institutions and individuals around town had already take action, expecting an earlier outage.

The UC Berkeley campus was uncharacteristically barren all day after the university called off all Wednesday classes on Tuesday evening and sent most employees home.

Around 6 p.m., after publication, UCPD sent an email saying the campus expects to be open with classes resuming on Thursday. But the situation could change.

“Based on the evolving information and continued ambiguity from PG&E regarding the power outage, campus leaders have decided that classes will take place on Thursday if there is no power outage tonight or early morning,” the email said. “The campus Crisis Management Team (comprised of the Chancellor, the Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost, and others) continues to meet to monitor the situation, which remains very fluid.”

The campus and other institutions put out periodic updates throughout the day, sometimes seeming as confused about the outage start time as their audiences. PG&E has faced ire from elected officials and local residents alike for its minimal and late information, and for a website that has been down almost the entire time since the utility confirmed the outage plan.

“One frustrating thing is on one level we’re told to rely on the website but the website keeps going down,” said Trish McDermott, Berkeley Unified spokeswoman.

The district kept all its schools open Wednesday, noting that none of the campuses showed up in PG&E’s outage address-finder, despite appearing within the general outage map zone.

“We see it as a relatively normal day,” McDermott said, speaking with Berkeleyside around 11 a.m.

“We’ve made no decisions to close today or tomorrow if power were to be turned off,” she said. “We have a contingency plan. For instance, today we stopped operation of all elevators at the schools in the map zone out of an abundance of caution, so if power goes out we wouldn’t have students or staff stuck in an elevator.” The district is putting some students who have accessibility needs in alternative classrooms, since they can’t access the elevators, McDermott said.

As for school meals, it’s “cheese sandwiches and fruit for lunch. We can guarantee water — not milk,” McDermott said.

“Baking and clothes-washing”: preparing for darkness

“Flashlights, batteries and lanterns.”

Those are the hot commodities at Ace Hardware in Downtown Berkeley this week, according to employee Elnora Babera.

The cleared-out shelves at the front of the store confirmed her observations Wednesday morning.

By 9:30 a.m., a few hours before the public safety power shutoff was scheduled to hit parts of Berkeley, there were still various battery-powered lighting implements available at the store. But many products had totally run out already, and Babera said the store had ordered more the night before.

Berkeley Hills resident Richard Chambers was among the customers combing through what remained on the shelves.“We did a lot of baking and clothes-washing this morning,” he said. “We’re planning to cook the ground turkey tomorrow,” lest it go bad in the outage.

“Black Out” scones were on sale at The Cheese Board Wednesday morning. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Chambers, like many of his neighbors, was caught a bit off guard by the news, a day or two ahead of time, that power could go out for days for huge portions of Northern California.

“This just came a little quicker than I thought,” he said. “It seems like a good test for a real emergency.”

For Ace, the scramble for flashlights is still nothing like what the store experienced exactly a year ago, when PG&E equipment caused the deadliest fire in the state’s history. The line of customers trying to buy masks wrapped all the way around and out of the store on the worst of those smoky days, Babera said.“This one is not as much. But we’ll see what happens by the end of the day,” she said.

Other shops were preparing to go dark themselves.

Safeway, on Solano and Fresno avenues, plans to close if the power goes out because the store doesn’t have a generator, staff told Berkeleyside. Reached Wednesday afternoon, an employee was awaiting a delivery of ice, so perishable food could be moved to an icebox in the basement.

The Meals on Wheels branch that covers Berkeley has been stocking up, alternatively, on non-perishable food items, to deliver “to our older adults in the impacted area,” said Tanya Bustamante, aging services manager.

Uncertainty remains about what, exactly, that “impacted area” includes, with discrepancies between the map and address-finder, and warnings that power lines stretching into other areas altogether could prompt further outages there. Berkeley residents could find out just after dinner.

Sarah Han contributed reporting.