Thousands in Sacramento lost power for 3 days or more. Can SMUD do more for vulnerable seniors?

Jan 13, 2023 | Energy Insecurity, In the News, SMUD

Source: The Sacramento Bee  |  By Cathie Anderson

Only an air mattress separates Sacramento resident Linda Barnard, 73, from the frame of her hospital bed, an electrical pump steadily alternating the pressure to prevent pressure sores and to improve her blood circulation.

When windstorms howled through the Woodlake neighborhood, toppling trees and with them power lines, Barnard sat against the metal frame for 24 hours before David Cropp, a colleague from work, found a gas-powered generator and got it to her.

On Tuesday, Barnard had been without power for four days. SMUD told her she could expect power Wednesday morning, but Barnard doubted it would happen.

The SMUD representative “said he would put a priority on my case because of my disability, but I don’t think they give a damn about that,” said Barnard, whose legs are immobilized due to past injuries and multiple sclerosis. “Not only do they have to turn the power on, but they have to reconnect the line to my house.”

She was among the Sacramento residents who endured lengthy electricity outages after a weekend storm knocked out power across the capital region. Crews worked around the clock to restore power and most of the 350,000 households and businesses that lost power that night had electricity within a day or two.

But some neighborhoods had much longer waits, including certain streets in South Land Park, East Sacramento and north Sacramento. By late Wednesday, about 3,000 SMUD customers still lacked electricity, straining the families who were still waiting for the lights to come back on.

Up the street from Barnard, Michelle Christoff had just returned Tuesday afternoon from a trip to a discount store to replenish her candle supply. She held up one of two puny wax cylinders she’d found and said: “It might make it through a bathroom run.”

Her household of five had been without power since Sunday, she said, and she hadn’t experienced such a protracted loss of power in the roughly 10 years she had lived in Woodlake. They already had a generator, she said, but when they filled it with $20 worth of gas, it ran for only two hours.

Farther north in Strawberry Manor, Ranita Harris’s home sat empty Tuesday. The home’s heaters depended on electricity, she said, and it hadn’t worked since Sunday. The 37-year-old mom relocated to a hotel in Natomas because she didn’t think it was healthy for her 5-year-old daughter to be subjected to such cold temperatures.

Harris said an elderly couple who lived near her also packed up and left for a hotel, but many of their neighbors were hunkering down in their homes.

That’s what nonagenarian Patricia Z’berg and her son were doing in the River Park neighborhood until their power was restored after she had appeared in a TV news report about outages. She’d lived in the house since 1959 and had never experienced having her power down for so long.

Z’berg’s neighbor, 72-year-old Claire Quillici, lived just a few houses down, on the opposite side of the street, and she still was waiting to get her service back on Tuesday. Quillici’s daughter, who lives in the same neighborhood, had power and invited her to come stay with her family, but then her husband came down with COVID-19.

Quillici opted to stay at home, but she expressed frustration at SMUD’s management of a power outage that had dragged on since Friday.

“We all called in, the minute it went down …, and they had no record of anybody calling in,” Quillici said. “My son said, ‘I was looking at the map. There’s no record. They’re not showing your street’s out and so I called it in for you. Finally the next day, I got an acknowledgment email stating my address.”

Barnard in Woodlake also wanted to see more action from the utility. Two trees fell into her home, she said, and she can’t begin the cleanup from water damage until her home has power for the contractor’s equipment.

In a news release issued Tuesday, SMUD said its crews are working around the clock as quickly and safely as possible to surmount complex jobs in challenging conditions. The utility said more than power poles have come down during the storms, and each takes a full crew eight hours to replace.

“The Sacramento region has been hit by a historic string of storms since New Year’s Eve — bringing with it heavy rains, 70-mph winds and lightning, causing devastating destruction and unprecedented storm-related outages to the Sacramento area,” officials said, “Last night’s storm was the fourth in a row to hammer Northern California. More than 599,000 customers have experienced power outages since New Year’s, and SMUD has restored power to 98% of those customers.”

Consumer advocate Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, said the utility should have been working in advance to identify residents such as Barnard who depend on medical equipment. The utility should be providing generators in advance, he said, to people who need them.

“The utility can’t do this alone, but I think it’s important for them to take some initiative to grow the network and have resources on ahead of time because, guess what, we’re going to keep getting these atmospheric (river) storms,” Toney said. “With climate change and everything, they’re going to keep coming. As bad things are now, we’ve got to figure out how we can minimize the impact and part of that is through good preparation but also reports and analyses.”

Toney urged Sacramento residents to require the board of directors for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to hire an independent investigator to assess how the utility performed and how it could do better: “Was the response time reasonable? Were the notices reasonable? Did they do a good job of identifying medically vulnerable customers ahead of time? Did they contact them ahead of time? Did they bring them portable generators? When people asked for portable generators, did they have enough? How long did it take?”

There’s a whole series of questions that could be asked, Toney said, and it’s hard to tell how a utility is doing when you’re in the middle of an emergency.

In Barnard’s case, it was a work colleague who managed to find what she’s certain was “the last generator in four counties.” David Cropp said he sprung into action as soon as he heard what Barnard was facing.

A licensed marriage and family therapist, Barnard continues to counsel patients and testify as an expert witness, using wireless internet access to meet by video with clients. She has a hoist that helps lift her into her wheelchair when she needs to go to court appearances. She and Cropp confer regularly.

Of the generator, he said: “I think it was just God looking out for Linda. I walked into … an Ace Hardware store, and I asked them if they have any generators. And, they said, ‘We’ve got one left.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it. Sight unseen, I’ll take it.’”

Everything in Barnard’s home runs on electricity — the heat, the stove, and of course the refrigerator. She bought the home, she said, from a SMUD executive.




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