Updated Oct. 13, 10:22 a.m.
Note: The number of customers without power changes often. Figures in the audio above may be out of date, but the text below is the most recent available from PG&E.
Pacific Gas & Electric announced Saturday that power has been restored to the almost 800,000 people across 35 counties in northern and central California who had lost electricity starting Wednesday morning.
PG&E had announced Tuesday that it would be shutting off power starting Wednesday morning due to high fire risk.
PG&E said that customers should prepare for an extended outage. That left a significant number of Californians out of power during the expected high fire risk weather event.
We asked for your questions about the shutoffs in general and about how customers can prepare. Here’s what we’ve found so far. Keep your questions coming, and we'll continue to answer them over the coming days.
Will I be affected by the blackout?
We have created a map of the areas that may be affected, with the most recent data from PG&E as of Wednesday morning. You can search for your address using the magnifying glass button in the bottom left corner of the map to see if you fall within the blackout area.
If you do fall within the blackout area, this does not mean that you will definitely lose power, just that you are within the area that PG&E expects to shut off power to. You can also see a full list of the counties and cities that PG&E expects to be impacted by the shutoff on PG&E's website.
PG&E says almost 800,000 customers will be impacted. But how many people does a customer represent and how many individuals will be impacted?
PG&E estimates that each “customer” represents about 3.1 people, according to CalOES. That means that about 2 million Californians could be impacted.
My area isn't affected by high winds. Why am I expected to lose power?
According to PG&E, some communities may lose power even if there aren't high winds or fire danger in the immediate area because the "electric system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions."
When will my power be turned off? When will my power be restored?
Power will be turned off to communities in stages, depending on local timing of the severe wind conditions.
PG&E began turning off power Wednesday morning after midnight for customers in Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo and Yuba counties.
The utility also announced the second phase of shutoffs had extended to the Sierra Nevada foothills and the central valley. A third phase shut off power for 4,000 customers in Kern County on Thursday morning.
PG&E says it cut power to around 738,000 customers. As of Sunday all customers had power restored.
PG&E says once the weather improves it could take up to 48 hours to inspect the lines and restore power.
Will SMUD customers be impacted at all by these outages?
SMUD does not rely on PG&E for power, and does not expect its customers to be impacted by the PG&E outages, SMUD spokesperson Christopher Capra said. SMUD also does not expect to call for any power shutoffs in its service area due to the high fire risk.
The PG&E outage is due to a strong winds expected in the forecast, which could also cause isolated SMUD outages. These potential outages would be treated like any other SMUD outage.
How will outages affect travel through the areas impacted?
One big impact on travel is that traffic signals may not work during the blackout. All signals throughout Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties contain power backups that will keep the signals running for 3 to 4 hours.
Once those backups run out, drivers should treat dark traffic signals like all-way stops.
Drivers may also run into signals with a flashing red light. That’s because some lights are equipped with a transition signal, the flashing light, for when the signal transfers from regular power to its battery backup, according to CalTrans.
Gas stations throughout the shutoff areas may also lose power, which could impact drivers’ ability to fuel their cars as well.
Will my plumbing work during a power outage?
The short answer is, it depends.
If your home relies on water from a well, you will likely not be able to get water in your sinks, showers, toilets, or other plumbing during an outage. Mr. Rooter Plumbing recommends that people who use well water start preparing when they know a power outage is coming up. Fill up your bathtub and any other containers with water that can be used to flush the toilet, and stock up on bottled water for drinking.
For people who rely on city water, a power outage will likely not impact your plumbing, according to Mr. Rooter. City water is often stored in water towers in higher elevation locations, so gravity and water pressure will keep water flowing in your home. However, if you live in a multi-story apartment building, your plumbing will likely shut off as soon as the power does.
A few appliances, like pump-reliant toilets and tank-less water heaters, will not work when the power goes out. Sump pumps, which prevent basements from flooding by pumping out rain water, will also stop working during an outage, so be careful to keep an eye out when the power goes out during a rainstorm.
Since PG&E's website has been down at times, are there other resources for determining whether my address will be impacted?
PG&E’s website was hit with a high level of traffic, which caused it to crash and left customers unable to access information about the potential power shutoff. We heard from a few people who were frustrated about this because they were unable to get to the page to sign up for alerts about the shutoff or to check out PG&E’s map of the impacted areas to see if they would be losing power.
As of Wednesday night PG&E has released a new website, including a new map page where you can look up your address to see if it will be affected.
PG&E's Brandi Merlo says the utility attempted to prepare for the traffic but underestimated the demand.
"On Monday, in preparation for increased traffic, we doubled the database capacity on our site," she said. "But even with that, we are seeing seven to eight times the normal traffic on that site and a significant number of increase in calls to our call center. As a result, the website is operating very slowly and many customers are getting an error message or are unable to get the information they need."
In addition to the new site, PG&E has previously posted some information on a different site since their main one crashed. PG&E has been tweeting fairly regularly since announcing this latest shutoff, and customers can follow them at @PGE4Me for the latest information.
If you can access the site now, copy and paste any necessary information and sign up for shutoff alerts in case the site goes down again later. You can also update your contact information with the utility by calling 1-866-743-6589.
Can the customers who do have their power shut off get any sort of reimbursement for the cost of spoiled food in the fridge?
PG&E does not reimburse customers impacted by public safety power shut offs for food lost or costs incurred by public safety power shutoffs, according to PG&E spokesperson Brandi Merlo.
Other than buying and installing a generator, do residents with medical needs for electricity have any other options when the power goes out?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a great answer to this question. PG&E tweeted a couple weeks ago recommending that people who rely on electricity to care for their medical needs to If plan in advance for how they will handle a power outage.
If you rely on electric or battery-dependent medical technologies such as assistive technology, breathing machines, a power wheelchair or scooter & home oxygen or dialysis, it is critical that you have a plan in place for an extended power outage https://t.co/92ha3cpXyh #PSPS pic.twitter.com/ePY9xkJuaV— PG&E (@PGE4Me) September 23, 2019
For people with diabetes who need insulin, this means finding a way to keep it cool. For people who rely on home oxygen or dialysis machines, it can be a bit trickier without a generator.
PG&E is opening resource centers throughout the areas impacted by this outage where customers can use the restroom, sit in an air-conditioned room and charge electronic devices, which could help people with portable devices they could charge there. A list of active resource centers is available on PG&E's website.
If you’re considering purchasing a generator to deal with power outages, here are Wirecutter’s recommendations for portable generators.
How have the outages affected Californians who rely on electronic cards for CalFresh benefits?
CalFresh is the state’s name for the federal food stamps program. The program's Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system that allows nearly 2 million low-income Californians to purchase food remained up-and-running during the outages, according to Adam Weintraub, spokesman with the state’s Department of Social Services
“So, if you can find a store that has power, you should be able to use your CalFresh card to purchase food at that facility,” Weintraub said.
“The difficulty is that many retail stores in communities that have been affected by the power outages, may not be open at all.”
Weintraub said some retailers will take down a CalFresh recipient's information on paper and enter it into the electronic system when the power is back on, but that's not required.
The spokesman added that if food purchased through CalFresh spoiled during the outage, recipients can ask county officials to reissue their EBT benefits. The department recommends people call their county office before visiting to make sure they are open.
What would the actual cost be for PG&E to run their lines underground in high risk areas and how long would it take to complete such a project? Are there obstacles other than cutting into shareholder profits?
It would cost PG&E about $3 million to convert one mile of overhead power lines into underground lines, according to a 2017 PG&E press release. It only costs about $800,000 to build a mile of overhead lines.
PG&E doesn’t plan to put all of their lines underground, and we don’t have information about how much that total project would cost or how long it would take. We’ve gotten this question a few times from listeners, but PG&E's Merlo said that “undergrounding” lines may not be the panacea that some people think it might be.
Underground lines come with their own vulnerabilities, Merlo said, such as flooding, lightning strikes and earthquakes. But PG&E has explored the option of underground lines in certain areas, including around Paradise
“Certainly we’re looking at it where it makes sense to do so,” Merlo said. “Also, when outages occur, it takes longer to find and fix typically because it is underground.”
Merlo says the company already has some lines underground and is considering other areas where it would make sense. PG&E also has plans to replace some of its wooden poles with stronger non-wood versions and to change out some of the power lines with coated ones.
Have more questions? Submit them to the form below and we may answer them in the next round!
CapRadio’s Ben Adler, Chris Nichols & the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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