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Dark for Days, a Wealthy Bay Area Town Hits Climate Reality

Sophie Alexander

(Bloomberg) -- On the third straight day without power in Mill Valley, a San Francisco suburb where the median home value is $1.5 million, the community center was one of the few places of refuge.

It was the destination for hot showers, fresh coffee and, most importantly, electricity. People huddled around dozens of tables in the main room, each equipped with an extension cord or two, charging their phones, tablets, laptops and every other device imaginable. Risa De Ferrari, a program supervisor at the center, estimated she’d seen upward of 500 people a day -- a scramble for basic conveniences in one of the most affluent areas of the country.

“These are just everyday things that are really critical,” De Ferrari said. “It’s been challenging for people in Mill Valley to even get access to internet to know what’s happening.”

Mill Valley’s home of Marin County was one of the hardest hit by this week’s blackouts engineered by utility PG&E Corp. to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires during a windstorm. The outages covered almost the entire county, a scenic enclave across the Golden Gate Bridge that’s home to about 260,000 people, including many wealthy Bay Area executives. Filmmaker George Lucas, billionaire presidential candidate Tom Steyer and WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann are among those with homes there.

The county was plunged into darkness Saturday and remained so even after power was restored to other parts of the Bay Area earlier this week. While electricity has mostly come back as winds die down, the outages wreaked havoc on day-to-day life. Schools were shut, forcing working parents to seek alternative arrangements. On Monday, 57% of cell sites in Marin were down, limiting wireless service, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Affluent residents, of course, are in a better position to weather extended outages than lower-income people who don’t have the means to travel elsewhere, pay for alternate child care or replace a refrigerator full of spoiled food. But the scene in Mill Valley showed how the effects of climate change are becoming a new reality for all Californians.

“A power shutoff is a great equalizer,” said Jenny Rogers, director of arts and recreation for Mill Valley. “I don’t know that any kind of money can shield you from being impacted by something like this.”

Outside the community center Tuesday, Ali Birnbach, a librarian, sat at a table handing out flyers to passerby and answered the same question over and over: When will the power be back? She didn’t have a definitive answer. “That’s the Magic 8 Ball we don’t have,” she said to one woman.

To say people are frustrated is an understatement, Birnbach said.

“Most people are frustrated with PG&E,” she said. “It’s not with the city, it’s not with anything else, it’s more so with the handling of this power crisis.”

PG&E sent texts warning it may cut power when many of those people have already been without it for several days. Without Wi-Fi, it was hard for some people to access more complete information, she said.

Another source of escape was the local Whole Foods and Mill Valley Market, where people crammed in to buy hot food and plug in their laptops. Both remained stocked with everything from a Marin-branded kombucha to exotic fruit to $150 caviar tasting trios.

Signs around the town reminded people of the Red Flag warning in effect -- increased fire danger because of low humidity and strong winds. Earlier in the week air quality was low enough from the smoke of nearby fires that people were directed to wear masks. Another banner reminded people what to do in the case of an earthquake: drop, cover and hold on.

The air quality was better Tuesday -- still a little hazy, as Birnbach put it, but good enough for groups to be out golfing at the Mill Valley Golf Course. The pro shop, though, was closed, pitch black inside. Despite the power outages and nearby raging fires, people are trying to carry on with life as normal.

“I’ve heard so many incredible stories of people coming out of here meeting and connecting and talking, getting to know their neighbors for the first time, going out to play like I did when I was a kid,” De Ferrari said.

As the power shutdowns and fires become more frequent, people in Marin are adjusting to be better prepared for the next ones.

“Every time this happens we’re assessing and evaluating and trying to see how we can make more improvements,” De Ferrari said, adding that as outages go on it’s just a waiting game. “We’re all kind of powerless in this situation -- literally and figuratively.”

(Updates with power returning in fifth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Scott Moritz and Todd Shields.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sophie Alexander in New York at salexander82@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Pierre Paulden at ppaulden@bloomberg.net, Kara Wetzel, Peter Eichenbaum

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