The following is a letter-to-the-editor, submitted by Frank Hartzell, of Fort Bragg, published here as opinion. Hartzell is a local journalist and his work has appeared in this publication however, the opinions expressed in this letter are his, not those of The Mendocino Voice. If you would like to submit a letter-to-the-editor feel free to write to email@example.com.
For more coverage of the blackouts follow this link.
Dear Supervisor Dan Gjerde, Assemblyman Jim Wood, Senator Mike McGuire, CPUC Executive Director Alice Stebbins and Governor Gavin Newsom:
Our cities, counties, assemblyman, senator and governor must look into what may be violations of law by PG&E’s upper management and the public relations division in the most recent power outage.
Among “broken links”, down websites, contradictory information and endless ambiguity, the most serious charge may be that PG&E made so little effort at communication with government and the media that this could be legal abrogation of their corporate responsibilities. Our public officials need to press this issue in supervisor chambers, at the CPUC [California Public Utilities Commission] and in the Legislature.
I listened to every radio station in the area and PGE public affairs never came on the radio to explain what was going on, provide access to a press conference or in any way inform its ratepayers (in my hearing and constant listening for pretty much all 5 days). To me, it looks as if PGE management does not know how their company works, how it can be shut off, what towns are tied to what and where the risks in the system lie. It is incomprehensible and inexcusable that they did not study more on how their own grid worked, at least after the Tubbs fire. I could be wrong, but that’s how it looked and PGE did nothing to counteract this picture.
Their own lack of knowledge about their own company is the only explanation I can see for the lack of specific information during the recent PGE caused economic disaster.
The information that they did give to radio people seemed to be given reluctantly and to be appallingly ambiguous from my standpoint as listener. If local reporters didn't make enough of an effort, that is NO EXCUSE. I have heard the sheriff and fire officials barge in and insist that lifesaving information go out.
I got 6 calls from PGE in my 5 days without power, none of which told me anything specific (or anything useful whatsoever). The calls said wind conditions were forecast which “may or may not” result in my power being out. When they called me 3 days into no power and told me once again my power “may or may not be turned off” and fired another insulting bunch of ambiguity at me I was truly fed up and asked to be taken off the call lists. Are they intentionally insulting us? It sure seems like that from here.
Each call provided a 12-13 digit number I was supposed to copy down and enter in on their website. The person speaking had B’s that sounded like D’s and M’s that sounded like N’s. The code was not repeated.
I also got emails with the same information. Fortunately, those had a link. But when I clicked the link it was the exact same useless, non specific information as I had heard on the phone. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why they did not use this link to provide explanations for what was going on! People would have watched hours of press conferences or for as long as the phone batteries held out.
IT COULD BE that there is a reasonable explanation for some or all of this. If so, they really blew it. Once in the 9th grade I got a C on a history essay. I told the teacher I had a lot more than I had written in my paper but didn’t think I needed to tell that part. It was obvious sir teacher!”
He said, “If you don’t tell us about it, it doesn’t exist.”
That’s how we must grade everything PGE did during this, and the only grade is an F for failing to inform us when we needed the most, even if they had good reason, a premise I am not at all convinced of.
Radio news didn’t criticize PGE. The radio folks were rightly worried about unhappy customers talking the power outage out on PGE workers. Jerks!! PGE workers are among the victims of the upper level management with the rest of us. They were not told the big picture either. The upper management uses these fine workers to hide behind (see all the TV ads featuring lineman, inspectors etc.). The only specific information I got was posted by Supervisor Ted Williams, but this was clearly pried out of PGE. WTF? Why are they not telling their customers what is going on? I am truly blown away by this failure to communicate.
The CPUC undergrounding program to encourage utilities to underground their wires started in 1967. (Cities and counties have a major role in this too and the failure goes beyond PGE) However, many other utilities around the nation took leadership in undergrounding (and future planning and maintenance). PGE remained dedicated mostly to profits for the shareholders. Now we have an endless landscape of old, vulnerable above-ground equipment in the middle of the fire zones.
This is a crisis folks! Our economy depends on dependable power and suddenly its gone without explanation? Our elected leaders and the news media need to be invited into every decision and every step if this ever happens again. Our leaders have the right to know what this regulated monopoly is doing and why and now! The public’s right to know is more important than ever in a crisis! This time they couldn't be bothered to tell us the 5ws while people clung to life on medical machines, while thousands of us lost income, work, food and while many went a bit crazy due to lack of any information.
Remember the way the sheriff kept us up to date on the terrifying situation after JeMelo and Matt Coleman were murdered (after first day or so)? Remember how the sheriff was on the radio helping mitigate scares in town and near schools, how they told us early, often and late? How PR during a disaster is usually one of the most important aspects?
Remember how the fire departments took the media along for the terrifying lightning complex fires in 2011 and offered round the clock coverage of what was going on, what they were doing and why?
You might think PGE people were all busy working on the lines and didn't have time to inform us? The company has an entire division devoted to community relations, public affairs and communications.
While record high winds were forecast, they never came to be as predicted. And they never came at all to the Coast, which was freezing cold, humid, damp and wind free.
Must we be prisoners of forecasts as well as weather?
Was ANY effort made to keep these power cutoffs to areas that might be impacted? Can PGE simply turn off power at their whim? If there is a real reason to shut down the entire grid for Sonoma fires, that would have been great to know. But we WERE NOT TOLD anything about that either. We have the technology explain this all in real time in the year 2019!
There were at least a dozen times this summer that these shutoffs for the Coast would have made more sense that this one. Are we now going to have a dozen weeks of the year with power out? Will every fire in Marin, Lake, Napa or Humboldt counties will now require cutting off the power to all of Mendocino County? How will we know? We need to know the plan! There needs to be criteria spelled out that the media and our elected leaders can use to evaluate PGE. We need specifics, not bland and vague statements like those we got this time, that could apply to anywhere, which is all we got for five days. We need press conferences, explanations, and up to date maps. PGE told Tom on the Coast that the maps were unreliable because they were generated by a Bot.
So get some new maps with that PR Platoon you have!.
Another VERY disturbing part of this is PGE seems to have changed its policies in a way that could have major impacts on the future of our area. They no longer turn power back on at night? (their press releases clearly state this horror) They also now no longer provide time estimates for power restoration? WHO GAVE THEM THIS KIND OF POWER? For decades they have turned my power back on quickly in the middle of a big storm in the dark of night and often provided estimates while doing so. Was there something different about this power outage that made it impossible to work at night and also made it impossible to make restoration time estimates? How can this be true? Please, leaders, get PGE to explain!
Lots of people here were panicked. Rumors said it would go on for weeks. The fights in the gas lines were real.
Next time, our officials need to demand that some news reporters (not selected by PGE) be given access and the ability to ask questions. Ratepayers could send their questions to the reporters and/or public officials. Our elected leaders MUST be given a role in the decision making on these voluntary outages.
To me there is only one long term solution-
- TURN the corporate charter off for PGE and shut the company down in bankruptcy court. Send the shareholders home. Sorry its rough, but so is the destruction of the entire Northern California economy with fire causing equipment that should have already been replaced and with blackouts PGE can’t be bothered to explain in real time. I will never get that week back. Zero income this time of year instead of my contract job will be hard to recover from. With an explanation, I might chalk it up to global warming and necessity. But not without. Not for a utility that can't be bothered to communicate with its customers.
- Have a court supervised state run takeover of PGE and replace this company with a NON PROFIT utility owned by the ratepayers or a municipal/state utilty.
- Retain line workers and make them owning members of the non profit/cooperative along with ratepayers.
- Float a state bond to cover critical undergrounding, upgrading equipment massive fire prevention measures (some of which will require suspension of environmental laws) and insurance reform. Nearly all will require use of eminent domain to force logging companies and other private property owners to comply with fire prevention)
- The state should also use the bond to step into fire insurance they way they have for earthquakes. The state should offer lower cost insurance to those who practice fire prevention, clearing of brush, following fire dept recommendations etc. Insurance companies in just the last five years have begun doing the worst possible thing for fires- ignoring all fire prevention efforts when issuing insurance. Now, they are all relying on robotic cost saving programs that use a google earth type map to make decisions.
Our jobs, economies and often lives are at stake with a company that isn’t interested in telling us anything. We need explanations right now and then an active role in our fates for our elected leaders.
I remember the many PGE calls and letters and explanation I got when I had commercial PGE at my warehouse at 900 N Franklin Street when they had to shut off power for a day, closing my business. I was given exact times, which were done in a way to have as little impact as possible.
Why cannot some of this kind of polite planning and communication happen during a PGE made disaster that made thousands suffer huge losses in income or in some cases their breath and health?
Yes don’t blame the blue truck people, they are great people ( I never saw any in Fort Bragg during the power outage and I did see at least a dozen ATT and a half dozen Comcast trucks). I never saw a helicopter either, perhaps because there was no wind or fire danger in our moldy, damp area?
Let's all be polite to all PGE workers, even the upper management so we can get this resolved. That brings me to another point- the PGE office in FB. During the first day of the outage here they offered a phone charging area in Ukiah, three hours round trip. But then they came and set up a small tent with chairs and tables and chargers at CV Starr. it would seem like their spacious office could have been generator powered and made a refuge for the powerless. If the FB police department lobby could be filled with people, along with city hall, the senior center, Harvest Market etc, it seems like the power company should have a plan B also for using their own office to help with the power outage they cause.
I don’t think people are yet seeing how catastrophic it will be for our economy if power has become unreliable and if there is no way for us to even get a reasonable explanation of what is going on or know the game-plan that results in a huge area being shut off that isn’t even at risk. Elected leaders- please help.