Catherine Bator and her husband got out their flashlights when the power suddenly shut off in their 25th floor apartment. But they quickly realized that lighting was the least of their worries.
“There we were with toilets that didn’t flush, stoves that didn’t cook, elevators that didn’t get us to street level, internet that didn’t work and phones that were quickly running out of juice,” Bator, 76, said during a San Francisco Board of Supervisors hearing about the blackout on Thursday.
She later learned that power in her building, just blocks from the Embarcadero, wouldn’t return for days.
“We were devastated,” Bator said. “By then, we were living on dried fruit, crackers and peanut butter.”
Bator is just one of thousands of San Franciscans who went for days without power after a fire ignited in an underground electrical transformer vault three blocks south of the Transamerica Pyramid on April 26. It took five days for Pacific Gas and Electric, which manages the city’s power distribution infrastructure, to get power up and running again at Bator’s apartment building, The Gateway, according to the building’s management.
“PG&E was nowhere to be found throughout this outage,” said Gateway Property Manager Anthony Carungay. That left his team struggling to answer the questions of the 2,500 tenants at the building.
City officials felt a similar frustration. They say the April 26 outage is just the latest example of a series of PG&E blackouts that have knocked out power to crucial infrastructure across San Francisco. Making matters worse, the company has consistently failed to provide officials with accurate and prompt information during the outages, Mayor London Breed and other city leaders wrote in a May 3 letter to PG&E CEO Patricia Poppe.
“When something like this happens, you would expect that there is going to be this mobilization of resources to come and help people in SROs and help tenants who are up 25 stories,” said Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin at the Thursday hearing about the blackouts. “You expect that Pacific Gas and Electric would be part of that response. That clearly was not the case here, and it’s troubling.”
Poppe replied to Breed’s letter saying that PG&E was on the scene of the April 26 fire within 15 minutes of the initial call. The vast majority of the service connections that lost power that evening were restored within 24 hours, Poppe wrote. She said the remaining customers were restored on April 30, contradicting the claims made by residents of The Gateway, who say power stayed off until the evening of May 1.
PG&E representatives communicated with city contacts more than 50 times during the outage and attended regular calls with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, Poppe wrote.
A History of Power Outages
Firehouses, hospitals and police stations across San Francisco have all faced recent power outages, Peskin said during the hearing.
In March, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital went without power for over 15 hours, according to Breed’s letter. While the hospital was able to continue patient care using backup generators, it wasn’t enough to operate at full steam. The outage closed the vaccine clinic and impacted equipment across the facility ranging from X-ray and MRI machines to bedside medication scanners, said the hospital’s Director of Facilities Terry Saltz.
The outage began around 11 p.m., but his team didn’t have any clear communication from PG&E until 9:30 a.m. the next morning, Saltz said. He thinks that better communication could have helped the hospital collaborate with the company, potentially reducing how long they went without power.
But PG&E’s CEO characterized the incident differently, writing that communication between the city and the company was “robust throughout the event.”
The General Hospital outage happened several days after the city’s major March downpour, which toppled trees across San Francisco and was one of the most impactful storms since the '90s, PG&E Vice President Aaron Johnson said at the Thursday hearing.
“We were very overwhelmed by the amount of damage that was on our system and the amount of wires down in the city,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, we made the choice to pull crews off of downed wire incidents to send to resolve the hospital issue because we recognized that priority for the city. If I could learn lessons from it, I would have made that choice sooner.”
Johnson added that the hospital has access to a 24/7 customer service line and the city’s Department of Emergency Management has a point of contact with PG&E who keeps in regular touch with the city.
Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the Department of Emergency Management, said at the hearing that her team does have a PG&E contact, but that person isn’t a decision-maker who has the up-to-date information she needs.
“My frustration was that I couldn’t get to someone who could make that decision that evening,” Carroll said. “I have PTSD from those hours from the concern of having our only trauma center for the region out of power.”
There were also power outages at San Francisco’s 911 center in September 2021 and October 2022, according to Breed’s letter. During that time, members of the public couldn’t reach 911, and dispatchers were forced to use pen and paper while their computer system was offline. PG&E didn’t provide reliable information about why the 911 center lost power, casting doubt on the center’s reliability and forcing the city to invest in pricey backup power infrastructure, Breed wrote.
“We urge the city to consider adding a second electrical connection to this critical facility to increase reliability—a best practice for critical operations facilities,” Poppe wrote regarding the 911 center.
Fallout From April 26
PG&E still has not determined exactly what caused the April 26 blackout that knocked out power to over 9,450 service connections—each of which can represent large multiunit buildings—in Downtown San Francisco. The company will submit an incident report to state regulators before the end of the month, Johnson said.
In the meantime, Peskin, the board president, said it's clear that emergency responders need to meet more with the utility to hammer out better procedures for when service gets knocked out.
“It’s just kind of mind-boggling that we’re not all on the same page about something as critical as keeping our hospitals and fire stations up and running and who’s supposed to call who,” Peskin said.
The fiasco surrounding April 26 has caused Breed and other city leaders to dig in their heels on a much larger long-term proposal: They want San Francisco to purchase PG&E’s local infrastructure, establishing an entirely public citywide utility. The plan has been in the works for years, but PG&E shows no sign of willingness to relinquish its assets.
Some at The Gateway apartment building have lost faith in the power company. The tenants association estimates that the 2,500 residents collectively lost over $1.4 million in spoiled food and multinight hotel stays.
“Nobody should have to experience what we did,” said Gateway Tenants Association Board Member Kevin Prichard. “PG&E has tremendous resources, and we believe they could have prevented this crisis had they better oversight and priorities.”
Noah Baustin can be reached at [email protected]