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Tales of Chaos From the California Power Outage




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On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Pacific Gas & Electric customers across a large swath of Northern California felt the effects of the utility’s biggest ever planned power outage.

The troubled utility — which filed for bankruptcy early this year and whose equipment started the state’s deadliest wildfire last year — has said the shut-offs are necessary to prevent its lines from sparking potentially catastrophic blazes as dangerous dry winds kick up.

The first round of power cuts to 500,000 customers started at midnight on Wednesday. A second round was set for noon, but was delayed until 8 p.m. and then delayed again.

On Thursday, all told, according to one estimate, as many as 2.5 million people could be affected by the outages, which officials have said could last for days.

[Read The Times’s updates on Wednesday’s power outages.]

Although the utility was supposed to give sufficient notice, many residents said they didn’t hear that they could lose power until they were left to scramble to buy batteries, generators and canned foods.

The day, residents told us, was about as chaotic as you would expect.

Schools like U.C. Berkeley and Humboldt State University canceled classes and closed campus, raising concerns that research could be ruined if some buildings don’t have sufficient power.

“Many friends and colleagues barely have enough emergency power to keep freezers cold and incubators running,” Julia Torvi, a graduate student and researcher at Berkeley, said in an email. “These two things hold millions of dollars of research, tens of years of effort, their contents being irreplaceable.”

She pointed to a tweet by an associate professor at Berkeley that showed moving trucks outside a building on campus preparing to relocate freezers to U.C. San Francisco because the building doesn’t have a backup power source.

David Lerman, who emailed from Berkeley, said his daughter is a student at Humboldt State.

He said he was frustrated by a lack of information about how students living in dorms would be affected. Eventually he was able to text his daughter, he said, adding that she was fine and planning to hunker down.

More upsetting, he said, was that PG&E had spent decades building a flawed system that residents have no option but to rely on.

“I blame PG&E for causing danger and disruptions because they are too cheap and irresponsible to protect the state,” he said. “The exclusive use of massive and historic poorly maintained transmission lines through vast heavily wooded and dry fueled mountains is absurd.”

[Read about the latest in PG&E’s bankruptcy case.]

His frustration was echoed by residents and elected officials alike.

“Millions without electricity is what a third-world country looks like, not a state that is the fifth-largest economy in the world,” said Jim Nielsen, a state senator who represents the area around Paradise.

By about 6 p.m., The San Francisco Chronicle (whose continuing live updates you can read here) said, power was being restored in some areas. According to The Chronicle, though, the outages could cause $1 billion — or, by some estimates, much more — in economic damages to residents and businesses.

And, as The Press Democrat reported, meteorologists warned that winds were still on their way.

Southern California Edison was considering preemptively cutting power to 173,877 customers in a vast area stretching from Kern County through Orange County, and from San Bernardino County to the coast, the utility said on its website Wednesday evening. San Diego Gas & Electric also warned that it may cut off power to about 29,000 customers in San Diego County, according to KPBS.

Still, Bobbie Hayes, whose power was cut off in Eureka, said she managed to find something of a silver lining in spending time off the grid.


“The lights went out, not at midnight, but at 1:45 a.m. I went outside with my dogs and saw the most amazing sky that was dark and filled with stars,” she said in an email. “The Milky Way was completely visible. It was breathtaking.”

[Here’s how to prepare for a power outage — to the extent possible.]

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  • Fresno County produced almost $7.9 billion in agricultural products last year — from grapes to pistachios to poultry — leading the nation for the first time since 2013. [The Fresno Bee]

  • Big tech companies move profits to avoid paying taxes on them. Now, international leaders are considering a plan to allow countries to tax multinational corporations even if they don’t operate there. [The New York Times]

  • Facebook has said it will allow political campaigns to publish ads with false and misleading content. This policy is getting an early test with a Trump campaign ad that CNN and others have said makes a false statement about Joe Biden. [The New York Times]

  • When asked about the N.B.A.’s clash with the Chinese government, the president instead called out two coaches, Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, who have criticized him in the past. [The New York Times]

  • Katelyn Ohashi, whose perfect gymnastics routine for U.C.L.A. went viral earlier this year, says that everyone was able to make money off her success — except her. The state’s new law allowing student athletes to be paid could make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone else. [New York Times Opinion]

If you missed it, here’s why Gov. Gavin Newsom thinks college athletes should get paid. [The New York Times]

Well, they expected it to be a riveting game. But this probably wasn’t what Dodgers fans had in mind.

The Los Angeles Dodgers came heartbreakingly close to besting the Washington Nationals on Wednesday and moving on to the National League Championship Series.

In the 10th inning, with the score tied, the Nationals’ Howie Kendrick hit a stinging grand slam and the team’s season was very, very over.

And so, I’m sorry to have to send you the above photo of Clayton Kershaw looking profoundly, existentially sad.

At least there’s always next year.

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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