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California

Scrambling to prep for an imminent blackout that took all day to arrive

Batteries sold out.
Batteries in short supply at an East Bay store.
(Maura Dolan/Los Angeles Times)

For many Northern Californians affected by the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. outages, the constant alerts that power would be shut off at specific times — only to have it remain on — proved more unnerving than actually losing electricity.

Mary Carey, a lawyer who lives in this wooded community bordering the Oakland-Berkeley hills, compared the situation with knowing that a “meteorite is on the way, but it won’t hit for 12 hours.”

The state’s largest utility began cutting power to customers shortly after midnight Wednesday and continued through early Thursday. The hope was that, by deactivating power lines, the wildfires that have ravaged California in recent years could be avoided.

By sunrise Wednesday, more than 600,000 households and businesses had no way to charge computers or run coffeemakers — substantially fewer than the 800,000 PG&E had anticipated earlier in the week. A second round of outages, expected to affect 234,000 customers in the San Francisco Bay Area, was planned for noon Wednesday. That one was delayed, too.

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You’d think there might be widespread relief. Not here.

This is what did — and did not — unfold.

Police agencies told residents Tuesday to expect to lose power at midnight. They were warned that the busy Caldecott Tunnel, which connects Contra Costa County to Oakland and Berkeley, might shut down because the lights would be out.

So people who needed to use the tunnel the next day canceled appointments. Residents emptied store shelves of batteries and water and lined up for gas.

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They did laundry, ran dishwashers and vacuumed, fearful that power would be off for several days. Some stuffed refrigerators and freezers so the power-thirsty appliances would stay colder longer. Others had the opposite impulse and emptied refrigerators into coolers, just in case.

But when these East Bay residents awoke Wednesday morning, electric alarm clocks still glowed with the time.

Police texted that the power was now scheduled to be shut off at noon. By then, gyms had already canceled classes and small businesses had posted “closed” signs in anticipation.

More scrambling ensued as people went out, looking for gas, ice, batteries and water. An automated teller machine in Moraga ran out of cash.

Some residents made impulse purchases of food and liquor to treat themselves before expected hardship. Others argued with spouses, bedeviled by frayed nerves.

Noon passed and the power remained on. The Caldecott Tunnel had obtained emergency generators and would stay open, it was announced.

“I think PG&E is just getting back at people,” said Kevin Marker, 66, a retired businessman.

New text alerts arrived declaring the shutoff would start at 8 p.m.

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At Italian Colors, a restaurant in Oakland’s Montclair district, waitresses hurriedly ran credit cards before the new deadline and placed votive candles on the tables.

The clock ticked past 8 and the lights stayed on.

“They are messing with us,” restaurant manager Linda Ziegler said. “Why do they tell us they are going to pull the plug, and they don’t?”

She said the constant anticipation of losing power had left her customers stressed and worn out.

Uncertainty wasn’t the only cause of Northern Californians’ lost sleep and gritted teeth. Just ask Annee Peterson, who was staffing the front desk at the Clearlake Senior Community Center in Lake County.

PG&E “called me three times in the middle of the night to tell me nothing,” the 66-year-old volunteer said. A shutoff was coming, but “they didn’t give specific times.”

Some took to Twitter to vent.

“Just do it already,” @cvnchita posted.

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”Mentally and physically prepared myself 3 times today for my power to be shut off ... and nothing,” @ShainasTV wrote.

Finally, shortly before 11 p.m., the power went out.

Carey awoke Thursday morning to what sounded like chain saws. A nearby house had a generator.

“The least they could do is offer neighbors coffee,” she grumbled, before getting on the freeway and heading north to find some.

Others had the same idea. In downtown Pleasant Hill, which did not lose power, long lines formed outside a Peet’s Coffee.

By early Thursday afternoon, a charging room that PG&E had set up at the Clearlake senior center was packed.

Rayna Walker, 65, and her terrier, Duke Ellington, had been without power for two days because Lake County had gone dark early. Walker was charging her phone when she found out that her parents, ages 85 and 93, had just lost power in their Bay Area home.

What frustrated Walker was the haphazard nature of the PG&E outages. Her daughter, who lived half a mile from her parents, still had electricity. “I feel angry and concerned that it’s the consumers that are being forced to do without and suffer,” she said, “when we pay so much for our utilities.”

In Orinda, the normally bustling downtown was deserted Thursday.

A fitness center had its doors open. A solitary member lifted weights in the dim interior.

Levi Muerset, the “experience manager” of the Anytime Fitness center, said he had opened up to make sure members could “relieve some stress during this entire situation.”

The cardio equipment that depended on electricity was down, but the gym had a single, battery-operated bike, and the weight-resistance machines worked.

“There is no light, but thanks to the windows, you can work out safely,” Muerset said.

Gas stations were closed, some surrounded by yellow tape. A supermarket remained open with dimmed lights inside. A triangular red flag emblazoned with the words “Fire Weather” rustled in the breeze at the Orinda fire station, and a burglar alarm whined in the distance.

When the shutdown finally arrived, some took it in stride.

Abhi Chandra, 42, of Moraga, said he grew up in India and was used to power shutoffs. His young daughters were excited to have their own flashlights, he said: “This is like a party for them.”

The businessman said the shutdown would encourage people to be ready for emergencies in the future: “This is like a controlled experiment.”

Dolan reported from Orinda, Chabria from Clearlake. Times staff writer Hannah Fry, in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.


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