Ignorance is no longer an excuse, if it ever was. In the wake of the PG&E blackout that darkened Humboldt County for some 28 hours last week, two things should be abundantly clear: The bankrupt power company is not going to be a reliable community partner going forward and we as a community are woefully unprepared for a large-scale disaster.
As you'll read in this week's cover story, there is plenty to be proud of in the way Humboldt County responded to a power outage of an unprecedented scale with little notice while being fed a stream of unreliable information by PG&E, which was either completely unprepared to respond to an incident of that scope or frighteningly uninformed about how its power grid actually works. Or perhaps some combination thereof.
But there's also lots of cause for concern on virtually all levels of the preparedness chain. On the most basic level, the fact that news of the outage caused massive runs on groceries and fuel is a sign that many of us who are mobile enough and have the means to drop everything to fill a cart with groceries aren't prepared for the lights to go out for a handful of days. That's troubling. As county Emergency Services Manager Dorie Lanni tells us, every household that is prepared is one less that her office has to worry about. Taking that a step further means that every individual and household that has the ability to prepare but chooses not to will directly impact officials' ability to provide services to those truly incapable of preparing, whether that's due to poverty, ill health or other factors.
We also learned through our reporting that it seems likely — at least a host of local health care industry leaders believe — that if this blackout had stretched another 24 hours, there wouldn't have been a local source of oxygen to refill the tanks that keep a portion of Humboldt County's vulnerable population breathing. This is beyond alarming and needs to be rectified as soon as possible, especially given that state and PG&E officials have indicated these Public Safety Power Shutoffs could become a normal occurrence, and 2018's fire season stretched into December.
The most troubling thing we found in our reporting, however, is that most agencies and organizations in Humboldt County do not store enough fuel for generators to power their operations beyond a few days. This is a problem, especially given that Chevron's terminal — by far the main source of diesel fuel to the county — can't pump gas without electricity from the grid. Even if we face nothing more than a prolonged power outage, that means after 48 to 72 hours, cell towers would cease to function, sewage could start backing up and faucets could go dry. Judging from the lines at supermarkets last week, residents are entirely unprepared for that scenario. Local agencies and organizations need to bulk up their backup capabilities, which requires financial investment. That may mean residents need to be willing to pay higher rates, taxes or other fees to help fortify our emergency infrastructure.
Lastly, as Blue Lake Rancheria showed us, it's long since time Humboldt County took some significant steps toward energy independence. By using its microgrid technology to keep the lights on during the blackout — and service an entire community — the Rancheria showcased the power of standing apart from the grid and using renewable energy. Collectively and independently we should follow their lead, from replacing those old battery-operated flashlights with solar-powered ones and looking at installing solar in our homes, to investing in microgrids where possible and finding large-scale sources of local renewable energy.
Whether PG&E flips the switch due to a fire danger hundreds of miles away or a massive earthquake cripples the grid, chances are Humboldt County will go dark again in the not too distant future. We've gotten a small taste of what that looks like. Let's make sure we're better prepared next time.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the Journal's arts and features editor. She prefers she/her pronouns and can be reached at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill. Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. He prefers he/him pronouns and can be reached at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.