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Ill and Disabled ‘Overwhelmed’ by PG&E Power Shut-Offs

Thousands of medically fragile Northern California PG&E customers were anxious about this week’s outages, as they hurried for backup energy sources for the equipment to stay mobile, refrigerate medications, or even stay alive.

California Wildfires Utility
This Nov. 15, 2018, aerial file photo shows the remains of residences leveled by the Camp wildfire in Paradise, Calif. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has received approval to establish a $105 million fund to help survivors of recent California wildfires started by the utility's power lines. A federal judge overseeing PG&E's bankruptcy case approved the utility's "wildfire assistance program" on Wednesday, May 22, 2019.
(TNS) — It was very early Wednesday morning when the lights went out in Julie Miller’s home in Auburn.

The power outage, a preemptive measure by PG&E to avoid a repeat of the devastating wildfires that consumed Northern California the last two years, posed a big problem for Miller, 65. She has cerebral palsy and sleeps on a special air mattress that needs to be plugged in for continuous air flow to prevent pressure wounds.

An overnight home aide, who was told the outage wouldn’t begin until the following morning, had to scramble to move Miller to her wheelchair because, without electricity, the mattress would deflate to its metal base.

“I had to spend the night in my wheelchair,” Miller said. “It was uncomfortable. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was really a mess, actually. Psychologically, it was a mess. When you’re used to something and things get turned around ... it is pretty stressful.”

Thousands of Northern California PG&E customers who are medically fragile were more alarmed than most about this week’s power outages, as they scrambled for backup energy sources for the equipment that helps them stay mobile, refrigerates their medications, or even keeps them alive.

For most of the more than 700,000 customers affected by the power outages, losing electricity was largely an inconvenience. Northern California hospitals and other health facilities were mostly running as usual Wednesday and Thursday, officials said.

But people who rely on electricity in their homes for critical medical needs — everything from keeping their insulin refrigerated to running their motorized wheelchairs or breathing machines — said they feared for their safety if the power stayed out for more than a few hours.

“I can do two or three hours, but this could be a four-day outage. I’m overwhelmed,” said Tom Watson, 75, who lives in Penn Valley (Nevada County) and lost his power at 4 a.m. Wednesday. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and relies on an oxygen generator to help him breathe throughout the day, plus he uses a power-operated nebulizer to deliver medication every four hours and another machine to help him breathe at night.

By Thursday afternoon, he’d missed several drug treatments and gone without supplemental oxygen, and he was feeling congested and short of breath.

“I’m getting kind of wheezy. And when I take a walk to the kitchen and back I’ve got to sit down and chuck air for a few minutes,” he said. “I wish I had my oxygen then.”

It’s not just people with obvious medical needs who were potentially at risk during the outages. When the lights suddenly went out at a senior community in Orinda Wednesday night, residents also lost the elevators, and many ended up trapped in upper floor apartments. They feared they could be stuck there for days.

“Oh, no no no no no,” said Glenda Dixon, 77, after being told Thursday that the power may be out for days. She lives on the fourth floor of the Monteverde Senior Apartments and relies on the elevators to get out of the building. She said a few of her neighbors were attempting the stairs, and she may do the same.

“This is horrible. I don’t ever remember this happening in any city,” she said. “Nobody wants to be stuck in this place.”

PG&E has an assistance program to help roughly 180,000 customers who are especially vulnerable to power cutoffs. But the program does not reach all customers who might need extra help, and even those who are part of the program say it’s not enough to alleviate their concerns about staying healthy and safe when the power goes off.

The program mostly gives those customers extra notice about a pending power outage. PG&E posted advice on social media Wednesday for people who rely on electric-powered medical devices, but it largely revolved around making an emergency plan — not what to do once the power goes off.

Watson, for example, said he had two days’ notice that his power was going off. But he wasn’t physically able to leave his home to purchase a generator, or to have it delivered and then set it up himself. By Thursday, though, he’d had enough and ordered a generator online — it was scheduled to be delivered next week, so at least he’ll have power for the next outage, he said.

Napa resident Gina Biter-Mundt said that’s a common problem among people who have health issues — they lack the mobility, or the money, to prepare appropriately, even if they are well informed.

The power went out at Biter-Mundt’s house after midnight Wednesday. She uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, plus a special bed that relies on electricity to lift her up and down so she can sleep safely and get herself into her wheelchair. She’s a disability rights advocate and even teaches disaster preparation classes, and she has a backup generator and a lithium battery to keep her equipment charged.

But even with all of her preparation, she said that her wheelchair would probably last only two more days before running out of power.

“And I’m one of the fortunate people where I’ve already thought about this stuff. There are some very vulnerable people out in the community who probably don’t have the financial means to be able to just purchase a generator,” Biter-Mundt said. “I’m concerned for those people that really are dependent on power, especially for oxygen to be able to breathe.”

Alan Stilwell of Pleasanton is one of those people. The 39-year-old is a paraplegic and has osteomyelitis, a bone condition that requires him to move around using a power wheelchair. He also uses a bed that must be plugged in to prevent him from developing pressure sores, and acupressure socks that connect to an electricity-powered pump to help blood circulation in his legs.

He said he first heard about the outages Tuesday night on television, which didn’t give him much time to prepare. He can’t afford to buy a generator.

“I can’t be moving around too much because my wheelchair will die within a couple hours,” Stilwell said.

Bay Area counties affected by outages opened charging centers for people to power everything from phones and laptops to medical equipment like electric wheelchairs and breathing machines. But people who are unable to leave their homes don’t have that option, disability rights advocates noted.

Groups that work with people who are vulnerable during an outage said they spent the early part of the week reaching out to clients to make sure they had enough water and other basic supplies, as well as plans for keeping necessary medical equipment charged. They continued to check in with them throughout the outages to make sure they are safe.

In Auburn, Miller’s care team spent hours Tuesday evening trying to prepare for the outage, looking into whether nearby motels could house Miller and her roommate, who also has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. But none could accommodate the type of wheelchair lift they use.

Lacy De La Fuente, who helps manage Miller’s care, said she was frustrated with the lack of support from PG&E. She said she asked the utility if it could provide generators to customers like Miller, and was told they needed to figure out their own backup plans.

“It kind of baffles me this is their solution to the fire issues,” De La Fuente said. “I understand wanting to protect the public, but this is definitely not a solution. This is adding to the problem.”

Chronicle staff writer Megan Cassidy contributed to this report.

Catherine Ho and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:


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