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Dark Shops, Spotty Phones, Rotting Fish: Life in a Mass Blackout

Lynn Doan
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Dark Shops, Spotty Phones, Rotting Fish: Life in a Mass Blackout

(Bloomberg) -- The first thing you notice is clearly the darkness.

I was showering late Wednesday, shampoo in my eyes and American Horror Story playing on my phone so loud that my husband couldn’t hear my shouts for a light. I had just become one of the millions of people to have lost power in the biggest orchestrated blackout in California history, and here I was excited about the ocean breeze-scented candle I had bought a day earlier -- because flashlights were sold out, and it was that or orange ginger.

Other thoughts that ran through my mind: “It’s a good thing I didn’t start a load of laundry,” and, “I’m going to miss the dishwasher.” Curious, the trivial, first-world problems you think of when you’re facing an unprecedented shutoff amid the threat of deadly wildfires and the prospect of going powerless for as long as a week.

Governor Attacks PG&E for Blackout Caused by ‘Greed and Neglect’

Our home in the Oakland hills was originally among the 250,000 properties in San Francisco’s bedroom communities that were supposed to lose power at noon local time on Wednesday -- joining the half a million that had gone dark just after midnight. Then the winds blew in our favor and bankrupt utility PG&E Corp. changed its mind, delaying our cutoff to 8 p.m. I texted a friend at 10:30 p.m. to say our lights were still on, thinking maybe we were in the clear -- and then it hit. After stumbling out of the shower, reality set in.

The second thing you notice is the Internet. I’m in charge of Bloomberg’s coverage of the outages, and had told my team that once the power went out I’d conserve juice on my laptop and work by phone. No dice. I should’ve known. We live in the Bay Area, the home of tech giants including Twitter, Facebook and -- dare I say it? -- Bloomberg. Of course powerless people would rush to their phones, overwhelming LTE networks and crippling mobile data access to us all.

That was painful. There’s some irony in the team leader of power at Bloomberg News losing power.

On Thursday morning, I managed to squeeze a few emails out of Verizon’s hobbled network from home before signing off to tend to our 1-year-old daughter and make the trek into San Francisco. I walked into the nursery to find Sophie’s hands and feet were freezing. So much for our natural gas-fueled heating system. A frantic Google search tells me that, while these systems indeed depend on gas, they’re designed to automatically shut off during power outages.

I passed pharmacies, banks, a coffee shop and several office buildings on my way to the bus stop in Oakland. All dark. A Lucky supermarket was among the few with lights on. A trailer-sized, backup generator parked in its lot.

At a clearly powerless sushi restaurant, a man was unloading a box of fresh tuna to deliver. “What are they going to do with that?” I asked him. “They don’t even have power.” He shrugged, “They ordered it.”

A worker at the local doughnut shop greeted patrons with: “No coffee, just donuts.” With the credit card machines down, I paid for my glazed twist with a $5 bill. It’s a cash economy in the Bay Area now.

At the bus stop, a woman held hands with her elementary school-aged son. His school was among the dozens shut because of the blackouts. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “What can I do?” she said. “I’m bringing him to work.” Her son then turned to me and said he gets to play video games all day. Lucky kid.

The drive into San Francisco was like re-entering the real world. Working traffic lights. Heating and cooling. Open and bustling coffee shops. Lucky them, too.

I took advantage of our office outlets to recharge my phone, watch, laptop and a back-up battery. At the end of the day, I scooped it all up for the bus ride back into the darkness. A friend texted to say her power was back in Cupertino, home of Apple. A colleague emailed to say hers was restored in the Berkeley Hills. Not mine.

I crossed back into the no-Internet zone, and my phone went silent. The bus driver turned to a woman lamenting the loss of hot water and said, “PG&E needs to be dissolved.”

I lit a candle at home and waited. We made plans to relocate a freezer-full of breast milk for Sophie to a friend’s place. I’m sure every nursing mother can feel me when I say my husband would’ve had to pry that milk stash from my cold dead hands before I parted ways with it.

Before we could load the cooler, we noticed lights flashing outside our front window. A PG&E truck had pulled up, and a worker was hovering in front of a pole, seemingly poking at the power lines above us. My husband, Sophie and I came out to watch. “Hey, is our power coming back on tonight?” I shouted to him. “I’ll be down in a minute,” he shouted back.

Then a light at the top of the pole flickered on. I heard my husband clapping, turned around and realized our home had lit up, too. And with that, we became one of the lucky ones. At the blackout’s height, as many as 800,000 customers had lost power. About 228,000 had been restored as of late Thursday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lynn Doan in San Francisco at ldoan6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at ldoan6@bloomberg.net, Kara Wetzel

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