Photo essay: On the ground during the PG&E blackout that affected millions
The lights went out. Refrigerators turned warm. Traffic lights stopped working. Schools closed.
Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses around California were in the dark in recent days as Pacific Gas & Electric deliberately cut off power to mitigate wildfire risk amid dry, windy weather at a time of year when the landscape is parched and highly flammable.
While power restoration is well underway, many are still living without it, waiting for an end to a tough, unnerving week.
In the gallery above, the story unfolds, from the first phase of blackouts at midnight on Wednesday, to the power restorations that are still ongoing.
The news of the outages sent people scrambling for food, water, gas and emergency essentials. Grocery store shelves were wiped out in many areas, and long lines developed at gas stations. School officials sat down to determine whether to close their doors and if so, for how many days. Without a real plan for a power outage, Caltrans rushed to find generators to keep the Caldecott Tunnel open.
PG&E updated the public but couldn't provide an exact timeline for when power would go off and when it would go on. The uncertainty was unsettling for anyone living in an area where the risk for fire was high and a shut-off was likely. PG&E's warning that outages could last up to five days was terrifying.
The shutdown was a result of a weather forecast predicting moderate windy conditions that could damage electrical equipment and systems, potentially sparking flames. But wind is difficult to predict, especially in the Bay Area where the terrain is complex, and some outages were delayed Wednesday when the strong winds arrived later than expected.
The outages came in three phases starting just after midnight Wednesday morning. The first two phases impacted the San Francisco Bay Area, where customers lost power in portions of every county except San Francisco.
PG&E projected up to 800,000 customers in California would be impacted, but since one customer could be an apartment complex housing dozens, the number of people impacted in the state was far more. The commonly used estimate for people impacted was 2.5 million.
Businesses and residents persevered through the outage, finding alternative ways to store perishable food, medicine and products. Parents were forced to find alternative care for their children if their school was closed.
Many also questioned whether the outages were necessary and why the utility company's equipment isn't built to better withstand wind. PG&E stood behind its decision based on the severity of the weather.
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson admitted that the company "was not adequately prepared" for the mass power outages, and said, "This is not how we want to serve you."
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Amy Graff is a digital editor at SFGATE. Email her at [email protected]