Long Beach Officials Ask Tough Questions About Disaster Preparedness at Town Hall

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Assemblymembers Mike Gipson and Anthony Rendon speak with others, including Assemblymember Patrick O'Donnell, Senator Ricardo Lara and Mayor Robert Garcia. Photos by Danielle Carson. 

Business owners, displaced residents, workers and rescuers confronted city officials and utility representatives in downtown Long Beach Saturday morning with much to say, especially regarding one topic in particular: the city has some hard lessons to learn about disaster preparedness.

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The California State Legislature Town Hall on the series of Long Beach power outages that occurred last month was held at Cesar Chavez Park at 10:30AM Saturday. Assemblymember Anthony Rendon led the event alongside assemblymembers Patrick O’Donnell and Mike Gipson, as well as State Senator Ricardo Lara and Mayor Robert Garcia. The city and state officials encouraged community members to share stories so both they and SCE could better understand the impact that the multiple blackouts had on their welfare. 

“When issues like this occur, we educate and we actuate,” O’Donnell said during the opening statements, before a series of panels brought more voices to the stage, including two Southern California Edison (SCE) executives in their first public appearance since the incidents. 

Gary Shelton, a resident of Long Beach whose home for disabled seniors lay in “the dark zone” on Third Street and Chestnut Avenue during the outages, referenced lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina on its 10th anniversary. 

“No matter what skill goes into emergency preparation, it doesn’t mean it’s all going to go as planned,” Shelton said. He said he and others in his residence were clueless when it came to safety procedures. “What we couldn’t be assured of is what the future was going to bring.”

Long Beach Fire Department (LBFD) Deputy Chief Richard Brandt said it would have been useful to have social media or on-the-ground updates from the state’s second-largest electrical utility.

“This lack of visible presence led to a void of relevant information from Edison,” Brandt said.  He praised the community’s resilience and noted there was no increase in crime or traffic incidents during the blackouts, although fire and police departments responded to a number of fire alarms, people stuck in elevators and patient assists.

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Gary Shelton, a resident of Long Beach, and Quentin Roberts, Vice President of Sales for the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, speak about resident and business losses on the first panel.

Brandt said the police and fire departments would have liked to know when networks would be de-energized for the purposes of repairs, so they could respond appropriately to additional blackouts.

The initial July 15 power outage began with a manhole explosion, affecting 300 customers. In order to safely troubleshoot and eventually restore power, SCE de-energized the surrounding network, which left around 31,000 without power.

The July 30 incident knocked out power for 400 customers, resulting in nearly 18,000 without power once workers de-energized the system.

Unrelated power outages also occurred on August 15 and 16. 

This "on the fly troubleshooting," as Greg Feree, vice president of distribution for SCE called it, "does not lend itself to effectively communicate in advance," he said.

Residents and business owners took the microphone and joined city officials in asking SCE what could have been done to prevent the outage, what will be done to safeguard for the future and what is presently being done to mitigate losses of food, medicines and even homes.

Ferree admitted that lack of communication and failure to promptly deploy a response team was their greatest hindrance.

Ferree said customers’ billing records indicate who was out of power for more that 24 hours, and said those people will receive a “proactive” $100 credit towards future bills. For those buildings with master meters, such as retirement homes, each resident will be compensated $100. 

“It’s a fair, immediate first step,” Ferree said.

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Greg Feree, vice president of Distribution for SCE (front) and Paul Grigaux, vice president of Transmission, Substations and Operations, answer questions from city and state officials during the second panel. 

Ferree said 2,200 people have submitted claims online, of which SCE has responded to 1,500. SCE is in the process of reaching out to the other 700 customers for additional information.

Ferree and Paul Grigaux, the vice president of Transmission, Substations and Operations for SCE, opened their panel with a presentation summarizing how Long Beach’s underground electrical system operates. 

Grigaux said the majority of Southern California operates off of a radial underground electrical system, in which power comes from one source and is fed to residences by individual transformers. In a radial system, a failure of any component is more likely to result in mass outages. Long Beach is unique in that it works on a network system, designed for urban areas with a higher concentrated population.

A network system is a complex “spider web” designed to keep power flowing in multiple directions so that power will not necessarily be lost in the case of a single point failure. Grigaux said Long Beach’s system has been reliable— there have been no issues of this magnitude since the 1950s. 

“Due to the fact that it was an underground system makes it a very complex restoration process, hence the timeframe that it took to restore,” Grigaux said.

Through visual inspections, SCE found that the July 15 blackout resulted from an electrical connection failure in a 12,000-volt splice on Ocean Boulevard and Pacific Avenue. This faulty connection weakened other network components down the line, which SCE believes to have been the cause of the July 30 outages.

“As a result of the first incident, it could have compromised components of the network system,” Ferree said.

Ferree said Edison has since worked to conduct more visual inspections and heat scans, reinforce key parts of the network and tether manhole covers to the underground to prevent them from incurring surface damage or injury in the case of another incident. 

"What we learned from these two blackouts is that we are nowhere prepared for a disaster," said Patrick Levin, the business manager and financial secretary of the local chapter of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, IBEW Local 47.

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Long Beach resident Ava Tehrani speaks about the hardships she has experienced since she lost her home in a candle fire during the first night of the first blackout. Tehrani is now staying with friends across the street from what was her home, which she was ordered to vacate. 

Levin said that the outages shouldn't have happened at all. 

"Sooner or later, all electrical systems have a finite [lifetime]" Levin, a retiree who worked as a lineman for 33 years, said. "[SCE's] method of maintenance is reactionary maintenance."

Levin said that the cause of the power outages is due to SCE's failure to properly maintain the underground electrical systems. 

“The biggest mitigating factor in these extensive outages… is that Edison has really shined on the maintenance program as it was designed,” Levin said. “Edison for the past few years has started cutting costs.”

SCE and the California Public Utilities Commission are still undergoing independent investigations to find the root cause of the splice failure. Ferree said the results of their investigation will be published on the SCE website upon completion.



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