Metropolis

The Week We Lived in a Climate Dystopia

How PG&E’s blackouts paralyzed one Northern California town.

A man stands in the darkened aisles of a CVS.
James Quinn walks through a darkened CVS as downtown Sonoma, California, remains without power on Wednesday.
Noah Berger/AP

Last year we packed our dogs and cats and everything we could fit into our cars and evacuated a town smelling of smoke with a red-tinged sky. The power outages this year—affecting at least 500,000 people in Northern California—aren’t as bad as the evacuation last year, but the causes are the same: First, our electric company, Pacific Gas and Electric, neglected to maintain its wires for years prior, which caused massive wildfires leading to hundreds of lost homes, dozens of deaths, and now, at this late date, “planned outages” to contain the risks it’s caused through its negligence, removing power from the very same customers whose communities have been decimated by wildfires. And then there’s the more nebulous, indirect cause: climate change, which has made the rains less certain, the high temperatures hotter, and wildfires an omnipresent, worsening risk.

Lake County, where I live with my family of five, is the poorest county in California, a site of many recent fires and ongoing neglect from the power company. Everyone we know in the county lost power. All schools are closed, and most businesses are, too. Medical facilities and pharmacies are closed. Gas stations are closed—the nearest one we found open was 10 miles away, with lines of cars spilling onto the street. Our family isn’t too badly off, all things considered, but I rely on Wi-Fi to work, and we need that income. Our kid needs Wi-Fi to do their schoolwork. We can’t cook hot food or shower in hot water, and at night it’s cold, in the 30s though thankfully not below freezing. I’m sure most people conceive of climate change as an encroaching threat, not something they actively experience. For Northern Californians, it’s here now.

We live about 40 minutes from the nearest Walmart, so we made our list on Monday (based on rumors that came before the official announcement the next day) for a trip Tuesday to prepare for Wednesday when we knew the power would go out. Flashlights, batteries, blankets, peanut butter, chips, cookies, crackers. I chatted with two very anxious women from our county as I waited 20 minutes for a Walmart employee to unlock the cabinet where they kept flashlights and batteries, but they were mostly all gone by that point. I bought three decent flashlights and, on a whim, three itty-bitty $1 flashlights to supplement them. On the way home we filled both cars with gas.

At home, my co-parents and I took the food and piled it high on the kitchen table. We wanted the kids—we have two, both from the foster system—to have the visual reassurance that there was still enough to eat, and besides, our pantry was still full of pasta and beans and olive oil and ramen noodles and all manner of food you had to cook, all useless to us once the power died, because of our electric stove.

It went out, as expected, between midnight and 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Our 13-year-old wandered the house flashing their flashlight into the dark corners and repeating, “The power is out! The power is out!” while the 18-year-old tried vainly to hush them and send them to bed.

On Wednesday morning, I surveyed the town for Wi-Fi so I could connect to work. Downtown, two restaurants had generators, and both were chock full of people, nowhere to sit even if they had Wi-Fi, which it wasn’t clear they did. I next tried Hamburger Hill, but the fast food joints were closed, no power there. Back down the hill, I found a Safeway open, sort of. Extremely weak lighting gave the store an apocalyptic feel, but the automatic doors and two registers were working. In the aisles, workers were piling frozen goods into huge bins as tall as I was, and customers used flashlights to search for what they needed of the nonperishable goods. The Starbucks was closed and the tables in the cafe area were covered in tomatoes, for some reason.

My dream of spending a couple hours plugged into the Wi-Fi of a local establishment had, by now, evaporated, so I began calling public libraries. Eventually I decided to visit one in Willits, about 50 minutes northwest of us. I brought the 13-year-old with me so they could do some online school assignments.

Back home, as the sun set and the darkness began to settle, we went into town to have a drink and be in the company of our neighbors. Gaslight, the one open restaurant on Main Street, was packed like I’d never seen it, and you could hear and smell their two generators from down the street. People were clustered in, attracted to the light, the warmth, or just the human contact. There, we heard rumors that the outage might last five days, or seven days, even. More than one person mentioned that even when PG&E officially restores services, there may be more outages to come. No one I met seemed inclined to sympathize with the utility’s dramatic decision to cut power for possibly millions to avoid a fire—they were just angry and indignant. We’ve known about PG&E’s issues for years. Why hadn’t they fixed things yet?

Through it all, I couldn’t help wondering: Is this all a vision of how it could be if our modern world can’t meet the environmental challenges we face? No sudden apocalyptic bang but instead profit-taking companies removing services piecemeal, a week of power shut off here, a rural area no longer cost-efficient to deliver power there? Would long drives become commonplace to get supplies, with those who can making do while those who can’t are left behind? PG&E’s website tells me that nearly 40,000 people in my county were affected, which is only about one-twentieth of the total number of Californians without power. On the East Coast, our situation has barely made the news. Do our votes count? Are Lake County voices even heard?

As I write, our home is still dark, but I’ve heard reports of neighbors getting the lights back on overnight. A neon sign in the window of a local business hints that normality may be returning soon. Forty-eight hours without power isn’t that bad, I imagine people will think. But, remember, we’re the ones who paid our electric bills. We trim our yards nearly to the ground, forgo grilling all summer, and avoid parking our cars on grass, all to reduce the fire risk. We do all the right things. PG&E’s mismanagement in the face of a growing global crisis caused the fires, not us. But we’re the ones camping in our living rooms, eating granola bars and Doritos, calming our kids, and driving 10 miles for gas. Another year and we’re still the ones paying for their mistakes.