Thousands still without power in Bay Area

January 7, 2008 7:44:24 PM PST
It's gone from inconvenient, to frustrating, to now -- just plain infuriating for PG&E customers still in the dark. So what's the problem? Why can't they get the lights back on?

It might sound ridiculous to those customers still in the dark, but PG&E says it was as prepared as possible for the storm and its response has been rapid. One of PG&E's harshest critics, the utilities watchdog group TURN, says it's too early to tell, and at least one PUC commissioner agrees.

PG&E says the bulk of the damage was caused by high winds and snow bringing down trees, which then brought down power poles and lines.

But the utility insists it was up to date on inspection and maintenance of 60-million trees over 130,000 miles of power lines in its territory.

And it says it did everything it could to prepare.

"We practice year-round for this. We train year-round for these things. We have exercises all year long to prepare for this," said David Eisenhauer from PG&E.

Then why does it take so long to restore power? PG&E says mutual aid from Southern California and Oregon utilities' crews was slow because they too were affected by the storm.

It had to wait for weather conditions to allow repairs.

And PG&E admits its call center was un-prepared to handle the hundreds of thousands of calls coming in every day.

"We've doubled the number of people we have at our call centers and we're doing a much better job. Our call wait times are very small for folks who call us," said Eisenhauer.

"In terms of the severity of the storm and its breadth they've been surprisingly few complaints," said PUC Commissioner John Bohn.

The state Public Utilities Commission regulates the utility. Commissioner John Bohn says it's too early to tell if PG&E dropped the ball on preparation or response, but praises what he can see so far.

"I mean it was a very, very severe storm and there really isn't anything you can do to prepare for that other than mobilize the crews, which we're satisfied they did," said Bohn.

Utility watchdog group TURN is less satisfied.

"From the customer's perspective it seems like PG&E is much more interested in polishing its own image than customer service at times like these," said Mindy Spatt from TURN.

PG&E admits there are workers who would like more hours, but the utility's first concern is the crews' safety, and getting enough rest.

There are about 5,400 homes still without power in the Santa Cruz Mountains today.

Many are in the small town of Felton. It's a community, off Highway 9. Right now, just under half the residents, or one 1,132, are still in the dark.

It's been that way since Friday morning. The wind knocked down trees and power lines. On Valley View Drive, every single person there is without power -- that means roughly 20 homes.

"No hot water, no heat so that's been tough. Lots of bundling up, we've been reading by candlelight, we do a lot of reading, we've been playing cards. No movies, no DVDs," said Felton homeowner Christopher Johnson.

Some but not all residents have generators. Many complained, if PG&E hadn't told them they'd have power by the weekend - they would've rented generators early one.

Now that they're going on day four without power -- a working, rentable generator in the valley is hard to find.

PG&E reps say those who've been out the longest will get power first. Worst case scenario is those in this area will be back up by Wednesday.