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A Communications ClusterKerfuffle 

Why, on the eve of a blackout, PG&E and Humboldt County were on very different pages for more than 20 hours

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Zach Lathouris

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It was about 4:15 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, when, just hours removed from a PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoff that had cut power to the entirety of Humboldt County for about 36 hours, the county Office of Emergency Services sent out an alert.

"PG&E advises that ALL customers in Humboldt County will lose power again early Tuesday morning due to extreme weather conditions in parts of Humboldt County and surrounding counties that will cause dangerous conditions for power transmission lines," the alert read. "Expect power to be out several days. ... This is the last alert for tonight as we prepare for the next scheduled outages."

With that, restaurants and grocery stores scrambled to cancel orders and store perishable inventory, school districts announced closures and hospitals scrambled to prepare for another stretch without power, readying generators and preparing patients.

At about 4:45 p.m., PG&E issued a press release saying that "portions" of 29 counties, including Humboldt, were "expected to be impacted" by a shutoff the following day. It offered no additional information.

Several hours later, a Redwood Coast Energy Authority Facebook post went viral locally, shared hundreds of times, seemingly in a matter of minutes. The post stated those in Humboldt County with electrical service were likely to keep it, at least until 9 p.m. the following night, and intoned that PG&E was trying a workaround to prevent the projected Oct. 29 outage altogether. Within an hour, the Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services countered, saying the "social media post making the rounds" was "not consistent with the information given to us by PG&E" and saying there may be some confusion because some of PG&E's maps and documents reference a zone called "Humboldt" that is actually located outside the county.

"The zone that includes Humboldt County is still scheduled to lose power between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. on Oct. 29," the OES post warned. "So be prepared to lose power in the early morning."

OES was so sure of its information it reached out to RCEA and the nonprofit took its post down, fearing it was disseminating inaccurate information. (RCEA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Some four hours later, around 11 p.m., PG&E issued a press release offering a timeline for the shutoffs. It said "Humboldt (Southern)" was slated to lose power at 7 a.m. and "Humboldt (Northern)" would follow at 9 p.m. that evening," confirming to some extent what RCEA had posted earlier.

The following morning, Humboldt County woke up with its power still intact. OES was standing by its proverbial guns, saying PG&E was trying to limit the impact of the shutoffs by putting them off as long as possible until the wildfire danger was imminent. But the office reiterated: Humboldt County would lose power in its entirety, all at once, beginning at any time.

The Journal caught up with Sheriff William Honsal mid-morning to try to get a handle on the divergent messages. Honsal was adamant: OES was getting the correct information and pushing out the appropriate message.

He said the confusion stemmed from PG&E's "division" names. The entirety of Humboldt County is located within the company's "Humboldt (Southern)" division, which put it in play to lose power at any time, he said. PG&E's "Humboldt (Northern)" division, the sheriff said, does not actually include any of Humboldt County and is instead located in Siskiyou County, adding that this is what OES had been told by the PG&E representatives it was working with directly through the shutoffs. OES had followed up repeatedly with questions, he said, and been consistently told the same thing. The problem, Honsal guessed, was in PG&E's communications division, which had brought in a bunch of spokespeople to deal with the barrage of media and customer inquiries, resulting in too many voices — coupled with the confusing division nomenclature — perhaps causing representatives to provide misinformation to customers and the media.

The Journal caught up with PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras about an hour later and she was equally adamant about the company's public messaging, saying the information it had been pushing out since 11 p.m. the previous night was accurate: That Southern Humboldt would lose power in the morning followed by the northern part of the county that night. In fact, she said, PG&E had already begun shutoffs in Southern Humboldt.

The company's outage maps, however, said something different. They indicated that while there were several outages in Southern Humboldt, they were limited to a couple hundred customers who had yet to regain power from the Oct. 26 shutoffs. They showed no new outages, Southern Humboldt-based reporter Kym Kemp reported that no one lost power that morning and OES did not receive any reports of new outages.

Pressed on why OES was putting out such a different message than PG&E, Contreras seemed unaware. Told that Honsal said OES was operating on a document from PG&E indicating "Humboldt (Northern)" was in Siskiyou County, she said, "That's probably an error." This reporter then urged her to have someone with PG&E follow up with OES because the two entities were clearly pushing out very different messages.

About 30 minutes later, OES posted to its Facebook page: "PG&E has provided the Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services inaccurate information regarding the times of de-energization in Humboldt County. OES has given PG&E the opportunity to retract this information, though at this time, they have not."

Reached Monday, Honsal said he still hadn't gotten a clear answer as to how the PG&E representatives OES was working with directly got this information so wrong, despite OES repeatedly asking for clarification.

"At that point in time, we had no reason to believe they had given us false information," he said. "We followed up with PG&E and asked those questions, but we had no reason not to trust them."

Frustrated, Honsal said he and other OES representatives went directly to a local power plant employee to ask what was going on and why, if OES had the correct information, PG&E kept pushing wrong information out to the public.

"The person says, 'You've been misinformed. Our PG&E people did not give OES the correct information,'" Honsal said. "Now, we've found out we have every reason not to trust them."

Honsal said the situation was tremendously frustrating, especially on the heels of past missteps from the company. He pointed to the fact that for the blackout that began Oct. 8, Humboldt was repeatedly told it wouldn't be in the scope of outages before ultimately being given just about six hours notice that it would definitely be impacted. Then, with the Oct. 26 outage, PG&E initially told OES that the blackout would only impact 2,200 customers in outlying areas with increased fire danger. Three hours later, it released maps indicating the entire county would go dark.

All the confusion and misinformation, Honsal said, leads one to believe PG&E doesn't entirely understand how its electrical grid operates and, for example, whether it can isolate an outage to Southern Humboldt while leaving the lights on in Eureka, or whether it can shut down a transmission line in Shasta County without Humboldt being impacted.

The sheriff said he still hasn't received a clear answer on whether the Oct. 26 shutoff was necessitated by conditions in Humboldt County or because transmission lines were de-energized elsewhere.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I'm really not sure. I don't know."

The Journal emailed PG&E with a list of specific questions about the exact reasons power was shutoff to the entirety of Humboldt County on Oct. 26, when just a sliver of the local area faced elevated fire risks, in hopes of getting to the bottom of the miscommunication regarding the potential Oct. 29 PSPS — a miscommunication that came with a five-figure price tag for some local businesses.

Contreras responded via email, offering some boilerplate information about how PSPS are aimed to "prevent catastrophic wildfires" and "each situation will be different, just like the day's weather."

"Customers," she wrote, "may experience a power outage even if the increased fire risk isn't in your area because of the way the grid works."

She did not directly answer any of the Journal's questions but promised her colleague "Mitch" would respond with answers to some of our inquiries. By deadline, he had not.

For his part, Honsal said he's hopeful some changes can be made that would improve the flow of information. Specifically, he's hopeful PG&E will allow members of the California Office of Emergency Services into its incident command for these shutoffs, which would allow them to then coordinate directly with county officials.

That way, the sheriff said, OES would be dealing directly with someone who wasn't worried about "spinning a message" or "being held accountable for every word."

"They would just be there to give us some good, quality information," he said.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. He prefers he/him pronouns and can be reached at 442-1400, extension 321, or Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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