Mandatory Blackouts Could Be ‘Devastating’—Though Extent of Danger Isn’t Clear

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California Public Utilities Commission seal

News broke last week of a California Public Utilities Commission decision approving mandatory blackouts across Malibu, at the sole discretion of Southern California Edison (SCE). The decision to cut power is designed to lessen the chances that downed power lines could lead to wildfires. However, news of the plan caused a stir among Malibu residents, many of whom asked the same questions: How will a citywide power outage affect driving on PCH and in neighborhoods? How will this affect the use of cell phones and the city’s emergency alert system? How will Malibu’s elderly and disabled residents get the help they need? How can firefighters effectively battle fires with no power?

These are the same questions city officials are now grappling with.

“This whole thing is bringing up issues we just haven’t dug into before because it wasn’t in heightened importance until now,” Public Safety Director Susan Dueñas said in a phone interview with The Malibu Times. “We know we can have power outages at any given time, but when they’re choosing to deliberately do it, it kind of changes it a little bit.”

Dueñas explained that the city would be working with SCE in the hopes of striking a compromise to keep Malibu from being plunged into darkness before a plan is in place.

“We’re super concerned,” Dueñas said. “We’re doing to do everything we can to get SCE to mitigate the impact. We’ve got to work something out, whether it’s them mitigating or if they won’t, give us one year or two to try to get our ducks in order to do this. It’s kind of hard springing it on us right before we enter into Santa Ana high wind season.”

Driving in Malibu during a blackout

According to the city, the Public Utilities Commission and SCE did not have a plan for what to do if power was cut to all 21 miles of PCH in Malibu, and they so far have not reached out to Caltrans to come up with a plan.

“We asked them, ‘Did you speak to Caltrans in terms of a generator at key signal locations?’—which is all of them in Malibu, obviously. They have not,” Dueñas said. “So, we feel that we’re trying to negotiate on the mitigation aspect.”

When it comes to driving in neighborhoods, Dueñas said it could be “devastating” in the event of a fire.

“When you look at a city like Malibu … that has so many neighborhoods where it’s one way in, one way out, we’re so limited in our ingress and egress, this could be a devastating strategy,” the public safety director said, later adding, “We’re really going to be crippled.”

Cell phones in a blackout

“I’m trying to figure out where the cell phone towers are, because my understanding is some cell towers have backup power and some [don’t],” Dueñas said. “My concern is if we can’t send an emergency alert out because some towers don’t have power.”

Sheriff’s and fire department officials will still notify residents in case of fire the old fashioned way; that is, knocking door-to-door and telling people to evacuate. But the sophisticated emergency alert systems currently being developed by the city may ultimately fail during a blackout, because power to cell towers will be cut along with everything else.

“I feel the rug’s been pulled out from under us if we don’t have power,” Dueñas said, though she added that, for all she knew, many of Malibu’s cell towers already had backup power sources. “Best case scenario: It’s a moot point here and they all have backup power, but I have no idea the status of them in Malibu.”

Elderly and disabled residents in a blackout

The public safety manager explained that, while some at-risk residents have volunteered information to the city about their health needs, the vast majority of elderly, ill and disabled residents do not provide this information—but the city does have ways to track down residents who may be at the highest risk in the case of an emergency blackout.

“I can go to our community services and say, ‘OK, who gets Meals on Wheels? Who are the Dial-a-Ride people?’” Dueñas described. “Those people obviously are going to be the ones who are most vulnerable.”

Fighting fires with no power

A lack of power could mean a lack of water in areas of the city most in need. According to Dueñas, if Malibu’s pump stations do not have adequate backup power sources, that will mean firefighters will not have the water necessary to douse flames, if a fire were to break out.

“We rely on pump stations to pump the water around the city,” she said. “If we can’t pump the water around we’re not going to have the water flow to fight fires correctly. It’s critical, especially with the pump stations. 

“If this is the new normal, we need time,” Dueñas continued. “You can’t just pull this on us. We need a phase-in. We need, like, a year, for people to take measures to mitigate a potential impact.”

When asked to comment on a possible legal challenge to the new rules, City Attorney Christi Hogin said nothing was on the table just yet.

“We haven’t had that conversation yet. It’s still fluid,” Hogin explained, later adding, “nothing’s final yet. We’re still actively engaged in troubleshooting.”

Southern California Edison will deliver a presentation about the policy and its implementation during a Malibu Public Safety Commission meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 1, at 5 p.m.  There will be another presentation before Malibu City Council on Monday, Aug. 27, at 6:30 p.m. Both meetings, held at Malibu City Hall, are open to the public.