Presentation to Long Beach City Council Details Strengths, Weaknesses of Disaster Response Amid 6th Major Power Outage of Summer

Long Beach City Hall. File photo.

The city’s director of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Communications delivered a presentation Tuesday night detailing how city leaders managed the Southern California Edison power outages that hampered the downtown area in late July. His presentation lent insight as to which protocols worked well, and which areas the city must improve upon.

Before the presentation was set to be received and filed, Mayor Robert Garcia made an announcement that yet another power outage had struck the city. The sixth major outage since July was affecting the West Long Beach community just south of Silverado Park with an estimated 1,400 residents without power.

“It’s unfortunately very timely, but as I understand, we just had an Edison outage and 1,400 customers are affected in parts of West Long Beach,” Garcia said. “This is obviously both unfortunately ironic but goes to show you that we need change, and there needs to be an improvement in the system.”

Even before the announcement, the mayor was critical of SCE. He said he lacked confidence in the power grid, as should residents and business owners, given the frequency of power outages over the summer.

Tuesday night’s outage was the sixth significant power outage since the original underground vault explosions and fires in July.

The mayor’s announcement concluded an otherwise concise PowerPoint presentation by Director Reggie Harrison, which illustrated the extent of the July 15 and July 30 power outages, noting that, at their peak, they left nearly 70,000 residents without power and lasted a combined seven days. The outages affected everything in the downtown area, cutting Metro Blue Line service, forcing the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) headquarters to use emergency generators, limiting their service level, and even temporarily closing down City Hall.

Harrison said the outages, the worst to strike the city since the 1950s, had the most profound impact on residents and business owners in the affected areas, as some were left without power for days. However, Harrison noted that despite the prolonged nature of the outages, there was no spike in crime or traffic accidents, attributing it to the strength of the downtown community.

“Our biggest round of applause and thanks, however, goes to those individuals and residents directly affected by the power outage,” Harrison said. “The camaraderie and respect that neighbors bestowed upon each other was incredibly inspiring.”

Harrison was critical of SCE’s use of language in dealing with city leaders, stating that their use of the term “customer” was often misleading, because accounts could be supporting one person or multiple unit apartments that affect several residents.

“We found that Edison did not use commonly used phrases,” Harrison said. “Case in point, Edison use of the term ‘number of customers’ or ‘accounts’ which we found did not equate to number of residents impacted which of course was the most important to city staff.”

The emergency numbers established during the SCE outages in July will be recycled for future use in the case of another emergency situation. The city currently uses a “reverse 911” to notify residents about updates to developing situations. It is in the process of updating to a new system employed by Orange County, Long Beach City College and California State University, Long Beach.

The new “Blackboard Connect” notification system will allow for residents to stay informed through updates via text message, landline, cell or email. 

The reliance on social media during the outages was both lauded and criticized during the meeting. Harrison said that the city’s use of Facebook and Twitter, among other services, allowed for accurate information to be distributed quickly throughout the city. However, some residents shared the concerns of some members of the council that not every resident is social media savvy, if they have an account at all.

Gary Shelton, a resident of a senior housing building near the civic center that among the buildings left without power for days, said that having police cars announcing updates and other types of old school remedies could’ve helped kept people informed in the event that they could not access the internet or lacked the know-how.

“We were deprived of high-tech solutions to communication," said Shelton, who spoke as a representative of the public at the the SCE town hall event in the wake of the outages. “I was getting Nixle but that was about the only thing. Low-tech would’ve helped in many ways.”

SCE was delivered a letter from the California Public Utility Commission last week that gives it 30 days to comply with inspections that require investigations of the utility's network capabilities and safety. Separate independent investigations by both the city and SCE were launched after the initial outages, the findings of which have yet to be made public.

As he has since the July 15 report of thousands of residents without power, Garcia openly demanded more of SCE. The mayor is hopeful that the Public Utility Commission's (PUC) involvement is a step in the direction of solutions.

“We need to regain our confidence," Garcia said. “Our confidence is broken as is our community’s and it needs to be repaired along with a sense of stronger partnership. What we’re looking for in the PUC in particular is clarity and some very clear recommendations.”



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