Solar lanterns and hot coffee up for grabs at PG&E center in Berkeley

People stand around large tent. Two have bright yellow vests on.
Power-less residents drop into a PG&E Community Resource Center for snacks, solar lanterns and phone charging Sunday morning. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The wind whipped around the tarp tent, shaking its walls. Inside huddled an eclectic group of campers.

Cal students, Catholic sisters, a mother and her hungry son.

Most of them had one thing in common: power was out in their homes and their cellphone batteries were dangerously low.

PG&E has set up “Community Resource Centers” in 25 counties where the utility has cut power, so affected residents can come grab bottled water and flashlights, charge up devices, and cool off. The one such center in Berkeley, which saw minimal traffic Sunday morning, is in the southwest parking lot at UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus, at Derby and Warring streets. It will stay open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as long as power is off in parts of the city.


During the first set of widespread shutoffs in early October, PG&E was criticized for setting up too few resource centers. The only one in Alameda County at the time was located at Merritt College in Oakland, not easily accessible by transit, and had room for just 100 people. This time, there are centers in Berkeley and Hayward too.

Throughout Sunday morning, the Berkeley center never came close to reaching its 50-person capacity. By noon, about 60 people total had dropped into the tent, according to staff logs. The several PG&E employees working the site said they weren’t authorized to speak with the media.

Several people dropped in just to grab some of the solar-powered lighting implements on offer, or a cup of hot coffee.

Others stuck around to charge up devices.

Theresa Dexter came carrying two cellphones that needed juice.

One belonged to the UC Berkeley social welfare graduate student, and one to the 87-year-old retired professor she lives with. Dexter is part of a program allowing Cal students to trade work — in her case house chores and cooking — for a place to live. She landed in the former professor and his wife’s large house above the Claremont Hotel, which they lost and rebuilt in the 1991 East Bay firestorm. The outage is resurfacing unhappy memories, Dexter said.

“He was panicked,” she said. “He’s not used to not having electricity. There’s an elevator in the house, and now he has to walk up the stairs. His car was stuck in the garage. I’m preparing so they can feel safe — we got the cat stuff out, we got the emergency bags out.”

Dexter said she knows she can evacuate or go charge her computer in a café if need be, but she feels for the elderly and disabled residents who don’t have the same mobility.

a middle-aged woman in a pink jacket stands next to boy, 12, wearing a hood. They're grinning. Portable toilets are visible in the background.
Tami Mau and son Zephyr Rhew are grateful they still have electricity, but they braved the strong winds to come gather supplies and information at the center anyway. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

One of the youngest people to stop by the center, Zephyr Rhew, had lucked out and got to keep his lights on.

Rhew, who celebrated his 12th birthday Friday, lives near Clark Kerr and expected to lose power — some of his neighbors did.

His family had stocked up on ice and flashlights, preparing for the worst.

“I thought we shouldn’t have candles on, because they’re miniature fires. And we have cats,” Rhew said.

His mom, Tami Mau, said the October outages have been good learning experiences.

“It just helped us look at and think about, what would we do if we didn’t have cell power or food in the fridge?” she said. She picked up an inflatable solar light at the center, while Rhew chomped on some barbecue flavored potato chips.

While Rhew skipped the serve-yourself coffee, a group of Catholic sisters on their way back from Mass at Newman Hall were happy to indulge.

The women are all scholars at the Jesuit School of Theology on Holy Hill, and they live on campus where the power’s out.

Their chief concern: the meals rapidly thawing in their freezers.

“If this goes on for long, there will be a lot of lost food!” said Diane Tomkinson.