The electricity at advocate Yomi Wrong’s Oakland, Calif. home has not been shut off despite planned blackouts, so she’s able to charge the electric wheelchair she uses to get around.
Wrong charged her old backup wheelchair in case she loses power, but some of her friends who live a mile away haven’t had power for days after utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced outages will affect more than half a million customers.
PG&E shut off the power to prevent strong dry winds from sparking wildfires, but Wrong says losing electricity poses life-threatening challenges for people with disabilities.
Almost 4.1 million people living in California have a disability, according to state data, and some rely on life-saving machines to dispense medication or control household functions like opening doors.
“It assumes that people who are able-bodied or well-resourced would be able to quickly either get backup power or go to hotels or travel to places outside of the planned shut off zones,” she says. “And that just is not the reality for anybody with access and functional needs.”
Wrong, who has a bone brittle disease, works in the health care industry to support her dual-income household but she still can’t afford the solar generator she would need to support herself at home.
This isn’t the first time the disability community has called for help from PG&E, California’s largest utility company, during a nearly identical scenario.
In 2000, an electricity crisis caused by short supply left more than 100,000 businesses and residences without power for two days. At that time, several disability agencies called for statewide early warning systems, a toll-free emergency hotline and charging stations.
Now, almost 20 years later, Wrong and fellow advocates are asking for a lot of the same things.
PG&E is setting up grant programs that allow independent living centers in the state to give residents hotel vouchers and backup power, but Wrong says this won’t help everyone.
“What we need are more resources specifically from PG&E because they can certainly afford it,” she says. “PG&E needs to be providing local governments with resources to be able to reach residents. We need very hyper-local, neighborhood by neighborhood-based resources.”
To help the community through the outages, Wrong says people are raising funds and developing mutual aid networks to support people who need it instead of relying on local government or PG&E.
There are about 20 volunteers around East Oakland fielding requests from individuals and families who need hotel vouchers or backup power, she says.
People in the San Francisco Bay Area with respiratory issues may need someone to help seal windows and doors in their home to keep out traveling smoke, she says.
Until PG&E gives the community the support it needs, she says people who aren’t disabled should step up and support folks who need it.
“Be allies. Find out what the community needs,” she says. “We need for everybody to join with us so that nobody is left behind in these kinds of scenarios.”