Plunged Into Darkness, Arcata Reacts to the PG&E Shutdown

Jack Taylor, Opinion Editor

October 20, 2019

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, October 9th, at around 1AM, Humboldt county was plunged into darkness. The blackout was the result of Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s new plan to combat the sort of dangerous conditions that had previously led to the tragic fires of past years. 

With a forecast of very strong winds on the horizon, accompanied by dry conditions, PG&E made the decision to enact its “Community Wildfire Safety Program” which, in this case, called for a “Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) in portions of 34 northern, central and coastal counties.” 

In an official press release, PG&E stated, “All the experts were aligned that this was a very high fire risk event and had all the ingredients necessary for significant fires.” 

In Humboldt county, the effects were felt immediately. Due to the nature of the shutdown, PG&E was unable to provide a concrete date on when the grid would be back up. Many residents were told to be prepared for a potential 3-5 days without power, resulting in a mild panic and scramble. On Tuesday night, gas stations around the county featured lines of cars lined up around blocks to get gas. Elsewhere, lines in grocery stores reached near unprecedented levels. With residents not sure where they would be able to purchase a variety of goods that could be needed for the blackout, local stores were overwhelmed with people. 

On Wednesday morning, the county awoke to darkness. Drivers quickly realized that all stop lights were down, starting at 2 a.m. that morning. Drivers treated them like four way stops, and any major accidents were avoided. Most of the businesses around Humboldt closed for the day, but a handful of stores stayed open. Some places, such as the Arcata Scoop, were actually giving away perishable items such as ice cream before they melted.

Stoplights cease working during the power outage.
Fiona Murphy/PEPPERBOX

At Arcata High, similar events were occurring. Arcata’s Student store faced the same issues that were occuring around Humboldt. Due to the loss of electricity and, therefore, refrigerations, they reported losing a “good amount of cream cheese,” said Sydni Sobota, a student store worker,  as well as whipped cream. Not only was the refrigeration out, but the store itself proved quite tricky to navigate in the dark.

 “It was pitch black in there, so you would go in and try to find something, and realize you couldn’t see anything,” said another worker, Talula Peterman. “People were tripping over things and bumping into each other.

A full day of school happened at Arcata High, with classes taking place both in the dark, and without any computers or technology. After school, many students went home to face some unforeseen problems.

 Junior Zane Clarke said

“My parents took the power outage very lightly, so we didn’t really prepare for it. We didn’t realize that when the power went out, so would our water, because it was from a well”

After his soccer practice, Zane “came home, after practice, and needed to take a shower and drink some water, but couldn’t do anything. We ended up going to the store and buying a gallon of water. It was full survival mode.” 

Thursday morning, Humboldt’s power was slowly restored. Throughout California, a mixture of confusion and animosity began to develop around the handling of this potential crisis by PG&E.  Despite some negativity by press and individuals, PG&E stood steadfast by their reasoning and decision making regarding the outage.

 “While we understand and recognize the major disruption this PSPS event imposed on our customers and the general public, these findings suggest that we made the right call, and importantly no catastrophic wildfires were started,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations.