Well, that new normal sure hit quick, huh? The Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which first swept over Humboldt County with minimal notice when it was thrust into 28 hours of darkness Oct. 8 and Oct. 9, came back with a vengeance less than three weeks later.
In an effort to keep its woefully neglected infrastructure from starting yet another devastating wildfire, PG&E cut power Oct. 26 to nearly 1 million customers spread across three dozen California counties, including more than 60,000 in Humboldt County. Locally, the blackout began around 10:30 p.m., with the entire county going dark around midnight — and staying that way for roughly 36 hours until lights blinked back on in swaths Oct. 28. But before the electricity returned, the power company was already warning that another blackout loomed before dawn Oct. 29, as more days of high winds and low humidity were in the forecast.
As the Journal rushed to press Oct. 28 — a day earlier than our normal printing deadline in an effort to get papers on newsstands this week — officials were warning that blackout could stretch several days. They urged those whose power had been restored to use the brief window to recharge and restock in preparation for another stretch without electricity, and warned those whose power was still out that it might not come back until the end of the week.
That this is the new normal in a state with the world's fifth largest economy is beyond ludicrous. And it's fair to wonder how long California's economy will enjoy its ranked designation if this continues.
Locally, with the dust far from settled, we've already received reports of grocers and producers having suffered five-figure losses from the blackout earlier this month. How many can sustain three of those in a single month is a troubling question, as is how it will impact their employees. Meanwhile, we hear some cannabis farms are on edge, too, awaiting word on whether generators will keep freezers going until the electricity comes back on to prevent the loss of a year's worth of product. In short, this is an economic catastrophe playing out in slow motion throughout Humboldt County and much of the state.
But that pales in comparison to the human toll. As PG&E announced the Oct. 26 blackout and rushed to prepare, the Journal received word that a local man who was one of six people hospitalized with respiratory trouble after his breathing aid had failed in the Oct. 8 blackout had died. Other deaths have been reported in other parts of the state, bringing home that, while to many this is an inconvenience, power outages can bring devastating consequences for the most vulnerable among us.
While the reasoning behind PG&E's immediate decisions to cut power to millions of Californians is understandable — one need only look a couple hundred miles to our south at the Kincade Fire to see the potential alternative. That blaze — the start of which coincided with a failure in a nearby PG&E transmission line — had grown to span 66,000 acres and threaten 80,000 homes as the Journal went to press.
But that in no way absolves PG&E of this dangerous blackout mess and its repercussions. After doling out $4.5 billion in shareholder dividends instead of trimming trees or moving transmission lines underground to prevent fires, according to federal Judge William Alsup, the company, which has already filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of massive liability from a spate of devastating wildfires, should stand as a cautionary example of what can happen when a business that answers only to investors is put in charge of vital public infrastructure.
If there's a silver lining in all this — and it really is hard to find one — it's that some of the best of Humboldt County has shone through. Neighbors have gone out of their way to help neighbors and nonprofits have sprung into action to provide for our most vulnerable. First responders have remained steadfast in their commitment to be there when called and healthcare providers haven't waivered in caring for those of us in need of aid, despite working in challenging conditions. Business owners have gone above and beyond to provide for residents' needs and a local tribe — the Blue Lake Rancheria — has used its microgrid to give respite to the community and show us there's a better way.
As bad as this has been, it could be far worse. The only reason it is not is that Humboldt County residents have picked each other up. Repeatedly. And it looks like we'll have to continue to do so. No other help is coming.
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 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.