El Nino is Coming, Are Californians Ready?

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At a PG&E press briefing in Fremont, California on Nov. 3, journalists were warned of a wet winter season due to El Niño. With it, according to Kevin Clifford, PG&E meteorologist, Californians “can expect higher than normal precipitation,” which means heavy rains, and powerful winter storms, leading to many hazardous conditions.

For PG&E,which provides more than 5.1 million residential customers with electric and gas, El Niño means potential outages, broken poles, down power lines and ruptured natural gas lines, a series of potential disasters. Barry Anderson, vice president of PG&E Emergency Preparedness and Operations, said that the company “has built three new control centers throughout our service territories, including one that runs on gas.” They are essentially nerve centers that allow the company to either diagnose outages or “make sure our healing grid work” in order to reroute power automatically. Technology has also helped PG&E to pinpoint where outages are taking place automatically within seconds, rather than relying chiefly on customers to call in.

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Kevin Clifford, PG&E meteorlogist, explaining El Nino patterns. 

Despite living in an earthquake prone state, most Californians are unprepared for disasters, according to Public Policy Institute of California. “When asked how much they know about steps they can take to prepare for a disaster such as a major earthquake, only one in three Californians (33%) say they are very knowledgeable, while slightly more than half (54%) claim to be somewhat knowledgeable,” the study reported. “About one in 10 adults admit to being not too (8%) or not at all (4%) knowledgeable about this subject.”

Yet “it takes only 10 minutes to put together a survival kit,” said Cynthia Shaw, Regional Communications Director of American Red Cross. Californians should stay informed and should have a disaster plan prepared. “if you are separated from your family you should have a plan as to how are you going to connect with each other,” she said. An evacuation plan is also important and so is identifying shelter locations. A community is only as prepared as its individual citizens, she added. “And make sure you have your cell phone chargers.” There are preparedness apps for Androids and iPhones that provide instant access to information on what to do before, during and after an emergency with preparedness information, she said. 

El Niño will bring landslides, strong winds, heavy rains, and low elevation snow. And one of the most hazardous situation would be a downed power line. The safest option in such a situation is to stay inside the house. But what about drivers? For demonstration, PG&E invited journalists to watch how a driver caught with a downed power line on her car might rescue herself. “Always treat downed power lines as if they are energized and dangerous,” warned Dane Lobb, PG&E public safety specialist. Downed power lines might be hidden in fallen snow or behind trees, he said. But if a downed power line is on top of your vehicle, “stay inside if it’s safe to do so.” If the car is on fire, or if you have to leave to save yourself, you need to “jump clear of the vehicle” and be careful “not to touch the ground and the vehicle at the same time.”

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Dane Lobbe, PG&E public safety specialist

To demonstrate the driver opened her door wide, swung to put her feet on the railing and stood up on the ledge with arms folded in front of her. Then she jumped. She landed with her feet together then she shuffled slowly forward with her feet constantly touching each other, heel to toes, toes to heel. On her second demonstration, the driver bunny hopped until she was at at least 30 feet away.

The demonstration took place under a sunny California sky. But given the prediction of El Niño, it most likely won't stay that way for long.