OAKLAND, Calif. - When the power goes out, maps are created, frail residents are checked on and lawyers craft states of emergency.
Dealing with these situations all take time. And money.
Since Oct. 5, Pacific Gas and Electric turned off power a total of five times to up to 2 million people at its peak in California, hoping that by cutting electricity during high winds, there would be less of a chance of their equipment toppling over, and therefore less of a chance of sparking fires. The longest shutoff lasted for five days and the most recent was this week on Wednesday. One major fire erupted, and was most likely the result a PG&E 230,000 volt transmission line failing, just before the power was turned off in Sonoma County.
It's nearly impossible to tally up every dollar spent or lost on these power shutoffs.
Director of Emergency Management Services Christopher Godley looks at a map of Sonoma County. Nov. 19, 2019
The Sonoma County Economic Development board is still calculating what it cost businesses in the area but industry leaders estimate there could be between $6 million to $15 million in losses. And nine cities within Sonoma County said the shutoff cost them a total of $4.5 million.
KTVU reached out to each of the Bay Area’s counties to tally their costs and to find how managers decided to divert staff and resources to deal with the outages.
Most of the money spent during the power shutoffs came from emergency services departments.
Among the findings:
Sonoma County spent the most -- an average of $220,000 day, with Marin County averaging $48,000 a day and Napa County at $40,000 a day.
KTVU also reached out to San Jose, where Mayor Sam Liccardo has been the most vocal about his anger about the PG&E shutoffs. San Jose spent an average of $88,291 a day, or $706, 249 for the first shutoff alone.
So, what was the money spent on?
In San Jose, city officials created mapping tools, sent employees out to check that generators were working, prepped community resource centers, and deployed police officers to put up signs in anticipation of the traffic lights not working. Librarians tabulated they worked $33,000 worth during the shutoffs, as they have deep ties with the community and served as liaisons for the county. Lawyers billed a $4,000 tab while drawing up state of emergency language. A lot of the costs were related to simply planning for the worst case scenario. Employees were told to code their timecards with anything and everything that was PG&E-shutoff related.
“We saw that our efforts to plan for this are part of the cost associated with it,” said Ray Riordan, San Jose’s director of emergency services. “If you look at a hurricane on the East Coast, it’s the same thing. Any time they’re working on a PSPS activities, they’re not working on the work they were hired to do.”
The situation room at the Sonoma County Office of Emergency Services.
Christopher Godley, director of emergency management for Sonoma County, couldn’t agree more.
“It takes staff away from their primary duties,” he said. “And so staff are not able to repair roads, make sure the parks are safe, do law enforcement investigations or take care of individuals who have health issues.”
For example, he said that 80 Health and Human Services employees were taken off their regular duties to go door to door and find out if the county’s vulnerable population needed help, such as extra batteries to ensure their oxygen tanks would work during a blackout.
In terms of recouping the losses, Godley said he’d let the board of supervisors figure that out. The county is already part of a lawsuit against PG&E over the 2018 wildfires and he said the money could possibly be addressed there. In San Jose, Riordan said the city will likely tap into state emergency funds to help recoup some of the losses.
But more than the financial cost, leaders from both counties said the outages take a human toll, as well.
“It disrupts the social fabric,” Godley said. “When we close a school, for example, children who normally might get their meals there, are no longer able to do so. When people want to have surgeries, to take care of a medical health condition, but their hospital is closed, it really disrupts lives in a significant way.”
Godley said that if these shutoffs were to occur multiple times every year for the next 10 years, the demand on local governments will be unprecedented and untenable.
“Having a multimillion dollar expense every year is something that’s not really sustainable,” he said. “And it’s going to come at the expense of other public services.”