No Power, No Water, No Phone: SoCal Residents Demand Answers After Utility Shut Offs

Amy Nelson cares for her Palomino Motley on a small horse ranch in Agua Dulce, but when the power goes out, so does her well water service. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

When high fire-risk conditions arrived in October and November, Southern California Edison made an unprecedented decision.

To avoid the utility's equipment sparking a wildfire, it cut off power to nearly 200,000 customers — the largest number ever — some for days at a time.

For customers in rural, foothill and mountain areas that meant losing a lot more than just electricity. Residents in some of those areas need power to pump water from wells, pressurize water lines from their homes, and maintain cell phone service. Without these they're isolated, vulnerable and stranded.

Which is why they're now demanding answers from Edison as to how this can be avoided in the future.

SIX DAYS WITH "ABSOLUTELY NO WATER"

Residents of Acton and Agua Dulce in Northern L.A. County have had standing-room-only meetings to confront Edison officials.

At a recent meeting of the Agua Dulce Town Council, Susan Hardie, 79, vented her frustration.

"We had an eight-day period, six days with absolutely no power, no water, no telephone, no landline, no computer, nothing," she said.

Hardie has lived in the rural community in north L.A. County for 35 years and felt a lot of independence in her home — until Edison cut the power to her and her neighbors.

"I live by myself. What would I do if I had a heart attack or a stroke? How would I get help? I have no way of knowing. I have no way of communicating. I have no way of getting any help at all," she said. "So I die?"

"WE ARE ISOLATED, WE'RE JUST SHUT DOWN"

Amy Nelson cares for six horses and two mules on her father-in-law's small ranch on Escondido Canyon Road in Agua Dulce.

The horses need barrels of water to drink each day, but when the power is out the water supply reduces to a trickle.

The property went dry three times in October and November, each time for at least 30 hours.

"When we have no power, there is no water pumping and we get a little bit of trickle gravity feed, but not enough to take a shower. Hardly enough to flush a toilet," Nelson said.

Water is also essential for firefighting. The day before the first power outage, a car caught fire on Highway 14, which threatened to burn their hay barn.

"Stuff was blowing off of the car as it got hotter and the tires were popping in and the fire was spreading to the hillside," Nelson said.

Her husband Steve was able to use their pump-fed water supply, "so he was able to put that out before the fire department even got here."

But the next day, when Edison cut the power, they were left stranded with no water — and no firefighting capacity.

Amy Nelson climbs a ladder to check on the well water flowing into the 4,000-gallon tank that serves a small horse ranch in Agua Dulce. (Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

A lack of water is only the start.

When the power is shut off, cell phone towers are also affected. The backup batteries can run out, and generators brought in to keep the cell towers running can also run out of fuel.

Which means, for people like the Nelsons, the public safety power shut-offs (PSPS) also cut off lifelines to water, power, the internet and phone lines.

"We can't contact friends or neighbors or family, and everybody's wondering what's going on and they're trying to tell us there's a fire near us or checking to see if we're OK," Nelson said. "So it's really hard because we are isolated. We're just shut down."

CALL 911

State senators from Acton and Santa Clarita also demanded answers from Edison during recent hearings.

They described a slew of complaints from residents.

One state senator said an elderly constituent with limited mobility was told to call 911. Another said a child's expensive medicine stored at a school nurse's refrigerator for use during schooltime spoiled during repeated outages.

MORE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Edison's own reports to the Public Utilities Commission show the company struggled to manage the unintended consequences of shutting off power to so many people.

Designed to protect the public, the outages ironically created their own safety risks.

  • During the Old Waterman Fire, a water pump lost power, causing San Bernardino County Firefighters to scramble to find a different source of water.
  • In Ventura County, a hospital lost power, although Edison was able to restore it while keeping some other businesses and homes on the same circuit blacked out.
  • Also in Ventura County, streets were jammed with people driving to get away from the Saddleridge Fire when Edison cut power to some traffic signals.
  • Edison's webpage with maps of outage areas crashed under the collective load of 2.5 million page views.
  • Thousands of customers did not get the 12-hour advance notice Edison promised. Some got less than two hours notice — or none at all.
  • At different times, the power went out, came back on again, and then blacked out again without advance notice.

POTENTIAL FIRES AVERTED

However, the company told the Public Utilities Commission that its overarching strategy of public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) had worked. Edison inspectors found 40 places where damage could have sparked new fires.

"Patrols conducted after PSPS events found multiple instances of equipment damage and tree branches on power lines that could have ignited a fire, had we not de-energized," Edison Senior Vice President Phil Harrington said.

Edison executives like Harrington acknowledge the glitches and say the company will cover some customers' losses — like spoiled food and medicine — for those who did not get the proper notice.

But Edison's bottom line is that the public has to be prepared for power shutoffs to become more routine over the next decade while it works to make its power lines and equipment more resistant to causing fires.

Amy Nelson and her husband Steve say they are now prepared for the next outage at the ranch. They bought a second generator so they can run one to power their home appliances and the other to keep the water flowing.

Despite the upgrade, they are still looking to Edison to work with telecom companies to keep their phones and internet working during outages.