How PG&E’s Power Shutoffs Sparked An East Bay Disability Rights Campaign

“People aren’t used to thinking about what they need in emergencies,” said Milbern, a disability rights activist whose day job is in human resources.

For her, the multiple power shutoffs in October served as a stark reminder that as these events become more common, people with disabilities can’t simply depend on emergency assistance from PG&E or local government agencies — they need to band together and pool resources.

To that end, Milbern helped form #PowerToLive, a grassroots campaign launched on the fly in the days leading up to the Oct. 26 blackout. Adapted from a mutual aid spreadsheet that had been circulated during the first outage earlier in October, the recent effort includes an online form where people can request or offer assistance. The group also developed an extensive, crowd-sourced survival guide “for folks who need #PowerToLive during a power shutoff,” detailing everything from tips for keeping insulin and other temperature-sensitive medications cool, to a rundown of different kinds of in-home generators and batteries to choose from and the hourly wattage required to power different types of devices.

A graphic posted on the group’s social media feeds. (Courtesy of Stacey Milbern)

During the late October round of shutoffs that hit multiple Bay Area communities, including parts of Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward, Milbern and her group of about 20 other volunteers monitored submissions to the online form closely, trying to quickly connect those in need with rides, places to stay and extra cash. In some cases, volunteers even helped residents seal doors and windows and build makeshift box-fan purifiers to keep out smoke from the massive Kincade Fire burning in Sonoma.

In all, the group supported 32 families, mostly from the East Bay, with more than 90 people offering housing or rides, she said. Milbern herself hosted four other people with disabilities in her small but electrified apartment, which served as a impromptu operations base.

“We believe this is a life-or-death issue. We don’t want our people to die or wind up institutionalized,” she said. “People with the least resources are banding together to help one another.”

The local effort comes amid reports of vulnerable Bay Area residents who were largely neglected during the shutoffs, including at least 20 seniors with wheelchairs and walkers who were trapped in the dark for two days in a low-income apartment complex in Novato, and largely left to fend for themselves.

PG&E was widely criticized for how it handled the first round of shutoffs in early October, when its website crashed and scores of customers complained of not receiving sufficient communications or assistance. The company vowed to improve its performance during subsequent outages.

But Milbern said the utility and local public agencies need to do much more to ensure that the most vulnerable residents are accounted for.

“I think just being happy that their website is up is too low a bar. They’re still leaving the burden of costs on disabled people,” said Milbern, noting the hefty expense of high-capacity batteries or generators that many people with disabilities have had to buy to keep their life-saving devices running during the outages. “These are already people with the least amount of resources to front the bill.”

The responsibility shouldn’t just fall on PG&E, she added; If power outages are the new normal, local and state government agencies also need to step up their response.

“They need to have a long-term plan for these scenarios,” she said. “It just seems like disabled people have been forgotten from PG&E’s mind, and the state.”

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