How the Disability Community Supported Each Other When the Power Went Out

(L-R) Karen Nakamura, Katie Savin and Rev. Terry De Grace-Morris gather in Savin's Oakland apartment on Oct. 10, 2019, during PG&E's power shutoff. (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

As thousands of Bay Area households, stores and streetlights were without electricity, three women gathered in a small Oakland apartment to charge their devices and commiserate about PG&E's unprecedented power shutdown.

"Well, I've got a smartphone and a computer," said Terry De Grace-Morris, a health care worker and ordained minister, who had lost power in her Montclair neighborhood apartment the night before. "The one thing I forgot in preparation for this big to-do was to grind up extra coffee, so I brought my coffee grinder and coffee over."

De Grace-Morris went to Katie Savin's home near the Oakland-Emeryville border, which didn't experience any service interruptions. Savin had put her name on a shared "mutual aid" spreadsheet that was started by several community activists a day before the first round of shutoffs.

By Friday, about 250 mostly East Bay residents had signed on to the list, whose existence was spread by word of mouth, to offer neighbors without power everything from outlets and fridge space to a place to spend the night.

The list was largely created to help people with disabilities, many of whom depend on power for essential resources like breathing and mobility devices, said Savin, a social worker and disability activist who has diabetes and needs her insulin supply refrigerated. It's a community, she noted, that largely felt neglected by authorities in the run-up to this week's power outage.

"I've been preparing in case I lost electricity, which I need for multiple medical things, and collaborating with other folks around trying to have contingency plans and making sure people know that I do have power now for anyone who needs it," Savin said.

Savin said people with disabilities she's spoken to still can't believe that the public service agencies and utilities they rely on didn't seem to have any concrete backup plan to accommodate them during an outage like this.

"I think there's been a lot of shock and just a lot of distress," Savin said. "Even people who didn't lose power, we all had to prepare for it and we all had to see that PG&E and the city didn't have a plan, even though we've seen all of these natural disasters, and seen that elderly and disabled people are usually the ones that are harmed or killed first. Nobody seemed to really care enough."

On the spreadsheet, Savin offered food, outlets, space in her fridge and access to a "comforting cat." Her two guests on Thursday hadn't found each other through the list — they're old friends — but they all agreed that a community resource list was an essential safety net for people with disabilities with few other options.

"It has just been such a mess," said Karen Nakamura, who was also there that day and is a professor of disability studies. She said she was flabbergasted by the insufficient preparation and response, not just from PG&E, but also from the cities of Berkeley and Oakland and even from her employer, UC Berkeley.

"We in the disability community have been telling them for years that they need to prepare for events like this," Nakamura said. "These are all things that we should have had prepared months, if not years, before. We live in wildfire and earthquake country — this is just absolutely untenable."

Local disability rights activists were particularly outraged by a Twitter message that the city of Berkeley sent on Tuesday in advance of the power outage. In response to one activist about what help would be available for people with disabilities, the city wrote in a tweet, "We are asking those in the potentially affected area who are power-dependent for medical reasons to use their own resources to get out."

The backlash was immediate and passionate.

"This...is not AT ALL how a city should handle a situation like this," Emily Ladau tweeted in response. "You don't ask disabled people and people with medical conditions to use their own resources to evacuate for a situation they didn't cause and that wasn't an unexpected emergency. Do better. Do way better. Now."

For its part, the city said it, too, was caught off guard by PG&E's last-minute outage plan and had to scramble to prepare. Despite the tweet, it did have staff working to assist its highest-needs residents, city spokesman Matthai Chakko told Berkeleyside.

"A public safety power shutoff is an unusual situation," he said, as opposed to an officially declared natural disaster when "state and regional health systems coordinate resources to help people with medical needs."

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Chakko said the city has worked for years to identify local residents with “access and functional needs," and that upon hearing about the planned outage, the city quickly created a task force of representatives from city departments and local disability organizations to reach out to them. By Wednesday afternoon, before parts of the hills lost power, city staff had called 42 high-needs people in the expected outage area and visited 14 more, with additional visits planned, he told Berkeleyside.

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Susan Wengraf, a Berkeley councilwoman who represents some of the hills neighborhoods that lost power, said it's indisputably the city's responsibility to protect as many citizens as possible.

"That's our job. And so I think it's something that we're going to have to, in the face of this new landscape, really take a hard look at and see if we can set up facilities for these people, if we can provide them with generators or battery backups or whatever," she said.

But Wengraf noted that Berkeley, like neighboring cities, has limited resources and can only do so much.

"In the meantime, we don't have a plan in place. In the meantime, yes, use your own resources to protect yourself and stay safe," Wengraf said.

Carrie Schiff, a San Francisco-based nurse practitioner who has a chronic health condition, helped start the mutual aid list. This week's power outage, she said, should serve as a solemn reminder to the disabled community that it can't rely on local government agencies and service providers for help during emergencies like this.

"PG&E’s priorities are negligent, ableist and potentially deadly," she said in a text message. "They were able to mobilize resources/generators to keep traffic moving through the Caldecott Tunnel, but chose not to allocate any such resources to keep people moving in their wheelchairs, keep their breathing machines running, or keep their insulin cold. We couldn’t rely on PG&E or local/state government to have a plan that didn’t put our lives at risk."

Amid the dearth of outside resources, she said members of her community showed that they are able to support each other and rise to the occasion when necessary.

People with chronic illnesses and disabilities "had to organize as a community to take care of each other," Schiff said. "We plan to keep organizing networks to take care of each other for next time."

KQED's Kate Wolffe contributed reporting to this post.

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