Update: A few Palo Alto Hills customers served by PG&E saw their electrical service shut off as part of the agency's planned outages late Wednesday. Read the story here.
Sections of the Palo Alto Hills were scheduled to see power go out on Wednesday as part of PG&E's pre-emptive outages, planned because hot, dry and windy weather has heightened the risk of a wildfire, according to the utility company.
The area is largely west of Interstate Highway 280; it includes Page Mill Road and Foothills Park. Residents and businesses in the affected zone initially expected to see their electricity shut off starting around noon, but PG&E on Wednesday afternoon pushed the start time to 8 p.m., then later said the time could shift to 10 p.m. or after. The time change is due to the shifting winds called the Diablo winds, which are moving more slowly than first forecast, PG&E officials said during an evening press conference. The power shutoff process began around 11:40 p.m. in Santa Clara County, the county's Office of Emergency Management said in an alert.
The outage is the second phase of PG&E's "Public Safety Power Shutoff" that will cut power to roughly 234,000 customers in northern California, including those in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Most of Woodside and Portola Valley are expected to be part of the power shutoffs, according to The Almanac, Palo Alto Online's sister publication.
PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said the wind event is expected to last through noon on Thursday.
"When weather subsides, we need to perform visual inspections of our power lines and equipment before we can begin the restoration process. We have 45 helicopters and 700 field personnel who will look for damage and complete repairs to restore power safely and as quickly as possible. We are asking customers to prepare for several days of outages," she said. Flamm said during the county press conference that restoring power to all lines could take up to five days.
While Palo Alto Utilities provides electrical service to the Palo Alto Hills, the city receives power from PG&E, according to a post on the city's Palo Alto Connect blog. Palo Alto Utilities serves an estimated 28,000 customers throughout the city. City spokeswoman Meghan Horrigan-Taylor said in an email that Palo Alto Utilities workers and PG&E would both shut off power to a small segment of Palo Alto west of Highway 280. If that happens, the outage would impact about 130 customers. A check of the city's outage map late Wednesday before midnight into Thursday showed no reported outages.
Palo Alto Hills resident Mark Nadim said Wednesday morning that he hadn't done much to prepare for a power outage but signed up for Nixle alerts to stay on top of the situation.
"I don't know what else we can do. I didn't buy any generator or anything. We're basically playing it by ear," he told the Weekly.
Shortly after, he received a phone call from AlertSCC and an email from the city announcing the power shutdown would affect the Palo Alto Foothills starting at noon.
Because Nadim works from home, his main concern is losing his internet connection.
Jay Weber, another Palo Alto Hills resident, said he has two families living in his home, including his grandson.
"We've just been talking about how to keep the breast milk in the freezer so it doesn't thaw. We are charging all our batteries and have our two electric cars all charged up. We won't need heat.
"We have a gas range so we should be able to cook. We've put five gallons of tap water in clean buckets in case we lose water, and we have a radio with a crank on it," he said.
The family isn't too concerned because there are areas that will have power where they can pick up supplies if needed.
"We're in the process of installing solar panels with a backup to keep power on. Maybe with the next outage I'll be powering our home with our own electricity off the grid," he said.
But Weber's glad PG&E is taking precautions. His said his wife would rather lose power than lose their home to a fire.
"I wish the infrastructure was a little better," he added.
Ironically, the power lines in his neighborhood are underground. Weber said he and his neighbors are "collateral damage" in the effort to protect the surrounding community by shutting off their power, he said.
Palo Alto city leaders don't anticipate other parts of Palo Alto will be affected and don't expect to see a disruption in public safety operations and gas, water and sewer services.
Business went on as normal at the Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club as of shortly after noon. The Foothills Park Interpretive Center remained opened as of about 1:15 p.m. Park rangers said they expect to continue normal operations and keep the park opened.
At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Santa Clara County leaders declared a local emergency, recognizing that more than 100,000 people are expected to be without power, possibly for days. The emergency is expected to last until all power has been restored.
The declaration is a logical step when the county must mobilize and coordinate with other agencies, said David Flamm, the county's deputy director of emergency services.
County Chief Operating Officer Miguel Marquez said the emergency declaration asks the state and federal governments to also declare emergencies.
There are 34 counties impacted by the event. About 1,100 people in the county are medical baseline customers with special medical equipment and requiring electrical power, he said.
County Counsel James R. Williams said the emergency declaration gives personnel more flexibility to mobilize necessary resources such as law enforcement. County staff don't know yet what impacts the power outage will have on cellphone coverage, lighting and security systems, he said.
The dayslong outage "will be significant," Williams said, including for people traveling through the area.
Flamm said has also received reports of PG&E field workers encountering aggression from the public.
County officials have also asked that people refrain from dialing 911 to report power outages so lines can remain open for emergency response calls.
Stanford University on Monday warned that the planned outages may impact operations at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, which is located in the Palo Alto foothills, but don't expect its main campus will be affected.
Palo Alto fire engine 365 is being deployed to Foothills Park to monitor the extreme fire conditions during the duration of the Red Flag Warning, according to the city.
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has temporarily closed five preserves to the public during the National Weather Service red flag warning for the Santa Cruz Mountains. Preserve closures include Lower La Honda Creek, Mindego Hill at Russian Ridge, Teague Hill, Thornewood and Windy Hill. The district urges the public to exercise caution at other preserves or take their recreational activities outside of the district’s open spaces during the red flag warning.
Caltrain, SamTrans and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority plan to continue normal transit services through their service areas.
The Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System also reported that its facilities within Palo Alto are operating as normal, according to an alert issued on Wednesday afternoon.
Classes were in session Wednesday at all Palo Alto Unified schools. Superintendent Don Austin met Tuesday with City Manager Ed Shikada and city staff to get an overview of how a potential power outage would affect the city. He also had an "all hands on deck" meeting with all district principals to discuss different scenarios, including how power outages elsewhere could affect the schools, such as parents getting delayed picking children up from after-school care.
"Most signs are pointing to the likelihood that we're not going to be affected but it's hard to tell for sure," he said Wednesday morning. "Our plan is to plan for the worst and hope for the best."
Even if schools lose power, classes will continue.
"As long as we have water, schools can remain open," Austin said.
Schools have emergency supplies, including lanterns, flashlights, and walkie-talkies, according to a message posted on the district website explaining procedures for power outages.
"Teachers are prepared to cope with a short-term power failure and will continue their regular curriculum and/or appropriate substitute assignments," the message reads. "Only the superintendent can order the closing of a school site, and will only consider doing so if necessary."
Ravenswood City School District interim Superintendent Gina Sudaria also sent a message out on Tuesday that schools would remain open on Wednesday though "everything is subject to change per weather conditions." The district operates schools in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park.
The State Water Resources Control Board issued a message to all public water systems on Tuesday afternoon that the power shutoff might affect water systems and the ability to provide water to customers.
The water board recommended that water providers acquire or position emergency generators to maintain water pressure and to ensure they have adequate fuel to run the generators for at least four to six days. Systems without adequate generators or fuel are asked to notify county emergency operations centers or Division of Drinking Water district offices.
The water providers should issue notices to customers to conserve water to reduce unnecessary demand. If the water system loses pressure, the providers should activate their Water Quality Emergency Notification Plan and have a "boil water" notice prepared to distribute to customers immediately if water pressure is lost.
Palo Alto spokeswoman Horrigan-Taylor said the city's water comes from San Francisco Public Utilities Commission through the Hetch Hetchy reservoir and is not pumped from wells.
"Our Utilities Department filled our local reservoirs as a precaution, in anticipation of a potential shutoff. The City does not need a generator to depressurize the system. However, there is a reservoir below grade off El Camino (Real), where we pump water out at times, and if needed, the City has emergency generators and fuel system protocols in place.
"We have not issued notices to customers to conserve water. (Since) we do not pump from wells, we would typically not need to issue a "boil water" notice. Though, we have templates available for several types of emergency situations to educate the community, if needed.
"The Regional Water Quality Control Plant has generators in place and will maintain treatment processes," she added.
Palo Alto Municipal Airport so far has no plans for closure and operations are normal, staff said on Wednesday.
Winds are estimated to reach 60 to 70 mph in higher elevations from Wednesday morning through Thursday morning, according to PG&E.
Anyone in the impacted area of the scheduled outages is advised to prepare ahead by looking for alternative ways to keep their phones and electronic devices charged; planning for medical needs such as medication that needs to be refrigerated; and replenishing emergency kits with necessities such as flashlights, first aid supplies and cash.
Close to 800,000 PG&E customers will have their power shut off Wednesday, with roughly 250,000 of those customers in the Bay Area. The first phase that affected 513,000 customers started shortly after midnight Wednesday in 22 counties north of San Francisco, including Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties. A third phase under consideration for initially about 43,000 customers in the utility company's southernmost portions of its service area has been scaled down to about 4,000 in sections of Kern County.