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Why California residents are ‘frustrated’ with PG&E over planned power outage

The power is still out across a wide swath of Northern California. Officials from utility company PG&E are conducting a planned blackout to reduce the risk of wildfire from high winds mixing with dry weather. But anger is building among the many residents who don’t agree with the timing or logic of the outage. William Brangham reports and talks to Matthias Gafni of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The power is still out in Northern California and across a wide swath of the state. The blackout was planned by public utility officials to reduce the risks of wildfire, as high winds mix with dry weather.

    But many don't agree with that timing or reasoning.

    And, as William Brangham tells us, the anger is building around the state, as residents, businesses and local government offices are trying to deal with it.

  • Woman:

    This is my neighborhood right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Across Northern California overnight, entire communities turned invisible to the naked eye.

    The region was plunged into darkness after the California utility company PG&E shut down power over fears high winds could bring down lines and start wildfires.

    PG&E initially said it would affect up to 800,000 households, which, according to other estimates, could impact nearly two million people.

  • Man:

    I think they jumped the gun, in my opinion. Turning it off is good, but wait until it's dangerous.

  • Man:

    PG&E in general should have taken care of this for the last 50 years.

  • William Brangham:

    PG&E says it restored power today to hundreds of thousands, but warned some outages could last for days.

    A statement today read: "We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience and the hardship, but we stand by the decision."

    In the meantime, residents stocked up on ICE and supplies, shopping in stores left in virtual darkness. Businesses that stayed open had to operate cash-only.

    Elsewhere, authorities reported several traffic accidents overnight which resulted in injuries. The decision to shut down power came as high winds and particularly dry conditions increased the threat of new wildfires.

    But California Governor Gavin Newsom said the reason for blackouts falls squarely on PG&E.

  • Gavin Newsom:

    They have created these conditions. It was unnecessary. We're doing everything in our power, my gosh, doing everything in our power to help them help themselves. Now it's time for them to do the right thing.

  • William Brangham:

    The electric utility has been held liable for its role in prior wildfires in 2017 because of downed power lines. It filed for bankruptcy this year after last year's devastating Camp Fire, which was believed to have been triggered in part by PG&E transmission lines.

    That blaze killed 85 people and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings.

    So, let's hear more about the impact of this blackout.

    Matthias Gafni of The San Francisco Chronicle is covering it in Northern California. And he joins me now from Oakland.

    Matthias, thank you very much for being here.

    I know you have been driving around in the regions that are — some of them that have been blacked out right now. What's it like?

  • Matthias Gafni:

    Yes, it's really frustrated a lot of people in the area.

    I mean, there's people who are struggling to know what to do with their food, for child care, for schools. There's moms, new moms, who are figuring out what to do with their frozen breast milk. I mean, it really runs the gamut.

    It's just been an incredible inconvenience for a lot of people. And they just want to know when it's going to end.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, blackouts are one of those things that really emphasize how many parts of our life are dependent upon electricity. I think about banks, hospitals, stores. All of those places are now seemingly in some sort of crisis mode.

  • Matthias Gafni:

    Most of them are closed, frankly.

    I mean, I went around a small city today in the major kind of business district, and I didn't find much open. I saw a janitor at a bar who was figuring out how to keep the beer cold. It's — the people are trying to maintain and figure out how to kind of get through it.

    And you see grocery stores with empty shelves because they had to dump all their perishables, people working off generators, some people. But most of the people I visited today had just closed up shop and were going to wait it out.

  • William Brangham:

    Now, PG&E says, it's really dry. It's really windy. We had to shut down the power so that these lines don't go down and trigger new fires.

    How are people responding to that rationale? Do they understand it? And what do they think about it?

  • Matthias Gafni:

    Yes, that's really the tricky part.

    You know, we had two straight years of just devastating wildfires in Northern California right around here around this time of the year. And, at the time, for the first one at least, PG&E didn't have a program where they could even do a shutdown like this, which is what they do in Southern California, the utilities down there.

    So they made that change last year. And yet we still had the Camp Fire. And I think the Camp Fire last year was a watershed moment. They had warned that they might do a shutdown. All the weather factors seemed to align with their standards and criteria for when they would do it. And yet, they kept the power on, and their electricity wound up causing this incredibly deadly fire, where more than 80 people died.

    So I think a lot of people understand that, but, at the same time, they realize that this is an incredible inconvenience. And they just hope it's done better, these shutdowns.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, obviously, people pay their utility bills. They have some reasonable expectation that the power would stay on somewhat consistently.

    Is there a viable long-term solution to this that doesn't involve putting people into the dark every time it gets hot and windy?

  • Matthias Gafni:

    It's really tricky.

    There's people — you know, one side of the spectrum say, you run this utility. You shouldn't have to shut it down to keep it safe. This should be safe to begin with.

    When you talk about increasing climate issues that are kind of putting a lot of stress on the system, that can be difficult. That's also putting stress on nature. We have a lot of dead trees in California that, when they topple over, they can hit a power line.

    So it's very difficult. But, at the same time, people are concerned that — you know, PG&E is a publicly traded company, and a lot of people think that they're caring more about the shareholders than they are about the general public and keeping them safe.

    So there's a balance that needs to be struck there, that's, you know, incredibly difficult. And a lot of people say, you know, make it go public. San Francisco has thought about buying out PG&E and taking it over. But, you know, there's a lot of difficulty there, too. Do they want to take on the liability if something bad happens?

  • William Brangham:

    I imagine this has just got to be so frustrating for so many people. And some of it, obviously, is the uncertainty of not knowing how long this is going to go.

    Is this — is PG&E giving people a sense of how long their lights will be out?

  • Matthias Gafni:

    They give you a ballpark idea.

    I mean, the weather event hopefully is going to be ending by the end of today. But that doesn't mean your power's coming right back on. My power is out. I'm not expecting it to be on for a day or two.

    And the reason is once the weather subsides, and you don't have that threat, PG&E has to go out and inspect all the lines before they even think about re-energizing those lines. And I talked to a PG&E official yesterday who compared all the lines that they will have to investigate and inspect after this incident equates to lining up — if you lined them all up, it would equate to the circumference of the Earth, the entire equator.

  • William Brangham:

    wow. And, then, obviously, there's no predicting whether or not this has to be redone in weeks or months ahead.

    Matthias Gafni of The San Francisco Chronicle, thank you very much for your time.

  • Matthias Gafni:

    Thanks for having me.

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