A massive blue spruce fell on power lines in Oakland during storms on Jan. 4, 2023, damaging the electrical panel at a KQED reporter's home and causing an outage in the neighborhood. The city has received more than 324 tree-related service requests since New Year's Eve due to torrential rains and wind. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
I never paid much attention to my house’s electrical panel, until a huge blue spruce next door crashed down on our driveway and adjacent power lines, ripping my panel off the wall during a storm on Jan. 4.
Immediately, our street in Oakland went dark.
PG&E crews restored service to the rest of my neighbors the next day. But not for us. Instead, our household has spent 10 long days without electricity, and counting. Trying to repair that box and get our lights back on has been a bureaucratic ordeal.
Because the damaged electrical panel and service line were on private property, we discovered we are on the hook for thousands of dollars in repairs — at least, until and unless our insurance covers the cost. And before an electrician could even start the work, we had to apply for a city permit and other documents, according to representatives with the Oakland Planning and Building Department and PG&E.
“It feels really sad that we still don’t have power,” said my daughter Anisha, 8, summing up the feeling inside our house on a recent cold evening. “Usually, we have lights and it's easier to do stuff.”
More than 2.3 million PG&E customers in California have experienced power outages since the storms on New Year’s Eve, according to the utility. The series of atmospheric river storms pounding the state have toppled trees, caused major flooding and evacuations, and led to the deaths of at least 19 people.
Most customers, about 92%, have been reconnected to service within 24 hours, said PG&E. But others are seeing much longer delays, as crews struggle to access sites safely for repairs, or for other reasons.
“We understand how important electricity is for keeping you and your family safe in the winter months, and we will continue working tirelessly to restore power,” said Tamar Sarkissian, a PG&E spokesperson. “This is the largest storm response in company history.”
The utility said it has 5,000 personnel responding to the historic deluge conditions throughout its service area, which spans from Bakersfield in the south to Eureka in the north. That figure includes contractors and other professionals brought in to help from states like Wisconsin and New Mexico, and even Canada.
It’s unclear how many Bay Area residents have dealt with extended outages like mine. Building inspection departments in Oakland, San Francisco and San José told me they haven’t seen a dramatic spike in permit applications for these kinds of electrical repairs yet.
But with hundreds of reports of downed trees, flooding and water-saturated soils, electricians like Phil Lopes are fielding a lot of calls from distressed residents facing damage to their property.
“It’s happening more frequently because of the storms,” said Lopes, who owns PSL Electric in Oakland and was born and raised in the Bay Area. “I haven't seen so many downed trees since I've been living out here.”
The long journey to restore power
In our case, it took about two days to get a contractor to remove the mass of tree limbs and branches that blocked our driveway and garage. Chain saw sounds reverberated through the neighborhood as passersby contemplated the wreckage. It felt like progress when I could finally drive my car out of the garage onto the street.
But despair started sinking in shortly after, on a Friday, when we submitted a request to PG&E for the first document we were told we needed to start electrical repairs — a confirmation of discussion, or COD (PDF), approving the location of the new panel. Right off the bat, a company representative said they wouldn’t be able to get to it until at least the following Monday.
Then, we needed a city permit approving the project and an inspection. I tried visiting the Oakland Planning and Building offices slightly after 2 p.m., but they were closed; due to the pandemic, the agency is open to walk-ins only on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Eric, my husband, while slumped on our couch, wearing a headlamp. “If it was really treated as an emergency, things would get done quicker. The permitting just adds more hurdles to get over.”
After additional calls to PG&E, city representatives sped their end of the process up. Two Planning and Building staffers called my KQED phone the same morning, offering to help. One of them said someone at the utility had given them a heads-up about our situation. The day before, I had asked PG&E questions as a reporter for this story.
Mercifully, the city department granted the permit the day we were able to apply, and sent an inspector to review the repairs by Lopes hours after they were completed. But they also clarified that the PG&E approval we spent three days waiting for wasn’t needed after all, because ... it was an emergency.
Why were we told to jump through that hoop? I couldn’t get an answer.
“To be clear, the COD is not required for emergency repairs,” said the city’s building department in a statement. Typically, however, a city inspector examining electrical work on-site will verify that the information on the COD is accurate and up to code and sign off on it for PG&E.
“This is a condition that PG&E has put in place, not the City of Oakland,” the building department added.
San Francisco and San José told me they don’t require that step for this kind of repair. (PG&E did not respond to questions on why it is needed in Oakland.) But you still need a permit and inspection. Patrick Hannan, with the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection, said that’s to prevent safety hazards like fires, electric shock and electrical shorts that can damage a property, or adjacent ones.
“An electrical permit is required to make sure the repair work has been done safely and is code compliant,” Hannan said. “For power outages on private property, the length of time to restore energy is largely dependent on how long it takes the owner to hire a contractor and the contractor to repair the damaged components. Once we are contacted for an inspection, we try to get an electrical inspector to the site within a couple of hours.”
Luckily, we can cook, take showers and keep our refrigerator and cellphones going at our place thanks to a noisy generator that we run from morning to dusk. But extended outages could spell disaster for others. Households where residents may be using medical equipment essential for life are especially at risk, said Mark Toney, who directs TURN, The Utility Reform Network, in San Francisco.
Accommodations for the medically vulnerable
Sarkissian, with PG&E, said they are working with counties and tribes to fulfill nearly 300 requests for small generators for customers with long outages. Older adults and people with disabilities may be eligible for portable batteries, lodging, food replacement and transportation through a disaster access initiative the utility said it’s supporting. And PG&E has the Medical Baseline Program, which offers extra notifications about outages to medically vulnerable people who sign up.
But Toney said most of those who are eligible don’t know about the program and may not be getting the help they need.
“PG&E must work closer with county health departments, closer with community-based organizations that are serving vulnerable populations to build up the list of Medical Baseline to get more people signed up so that they can be reached when we have these emergencies,” said Toney, of TURN.
At our house, my kids keep asking when we’ll be able to switch the lights on. Anisha, a third grader, already has a plan for what she’ll do when life regains normalcy.
“I’m going to play with my dolls that I got for Christmas, and color without having to bring a flashlight,” she said.
We now have a brand-new electrical panel and service line. But getting reconnected to power may still take a few more days, a PG&E representative said, as torrential rains and widespread outages continue through next week.
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