California’s Secretary of State Shares His Story as a Porter Ranch Refugee

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Secretary of State Alex Padilla and his wife Angela attend an awards event in Pasadena in 2013. (Michael Kovac/Getty Images )

Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s family has been living in a Burbank hotel for months. He says his wife and three young sons began experiencing shortness of breath and headaches soon after a massive methane gas leak began near their home in Porter Ranch, an affluent community in the San Fernando Valley.

“You know, when the news story first broke, we immediately went on high alert because the youngest of our boys wasn’t even a year old. He just turned 1 a couple weeks ago. And so you immediately think, ‘Am I putting my kids in any danger?’ ” says Padilla.

He and his wife decided not to take any chances. “It’s not the easiest thing to be out of your own home. But with my wife and our three boys feeling a lot better since we moved out, I know it was the right decision,” he says.

Explaining this to young children hasn’t been easy.

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“Our 8-year-old thinks it’s fun, because the hotel happens to have a pool. Our newborn doesn’t know the difference with what’s going on. Our middle boy certainly misses home. He’s asking to go home on a very constant basis.”

Secretary of State Alex Padilla with his family.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla with his family. (Courtesy Alex Padilla)

Padilla is one of thousands of displaced residents from Porter Ranch. He says that although he’s frustrated by his personal situation, as a state official charged with ensuring transparency in voting and civic participation, he’s happy to see state lawmakers starting to take action to prevent something like this from happening at other gas storage facilities around the state.

Some members of the Assembly are calling for the dismantling of the California Public Utilities Commission because of the agency’s failure to respond quickly to the gas leak.

“I do think there needs to be a new day for the PUC. Have they done a good enough job of overseeing the utilities in different parts of California?” Padilla says, citing the 2010 explosion in San Bruno near San Francisco and the closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant north of San Diego because of its history of safety concerns.

“It’s a big reminder that our oversight of utilities needs to be reformed, and we can’t ignore our aging infrastructure. A lot of times in the Capitol, investment in infrastructure is discussed. It’s usually highways and bridges, and that’s important, but we can’t forget the infrastructure that we don’t see.”

The  gas leak may be sealed as early as next week. But Padilla says he’s not going to move his family back until he’s totally reassured. “I’ll tell you as a father and as a husband, I appreciate when I hear from the gas company the gas leak has been fixed, but I’m going to want a third-party validator here. Whether it’s the air quality management district or a state agency to confirm that’s indeed the case,” says Padilla.

Padilla says that even though his family spent Christmas day in the Burbank hotel, he’s grateful. “I remember huddling the kids and reminding them, ‘Look we’re together, we have our health, we have a roof over our head.’ There’s a lot of people in the world, there’s a lot of people in California that can’t say that.”

Still, they can’t wait to return home. “Our youngest just celebrated one year, and seems like his first steps are going to be in a hotel room, not in our living room. Maybe that’s just the story he’ll have to tell the rest of his life.”