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Manteca prepares for ‘unprecedented’ disaster of five days without electricity
Manteca Seal

Kathy Martinez wanted her neighbors to know PG&E’s plan to reduce its liability when wildfire conditions exist by possibly de-energizing transmission lines that could knock out power to Manteca and surrounding communities for 2 to 5 days isn’t something that could happen a month or so down the road.

“This could happen now,” she warned a packed council chambers Tuesday where angry Manteca residents had gathered to hear PG&E layout its Community Wildfire Safety Program and how the City of Manteca plans to deal with what officials have termed “an unprecedented emergency.”

Martinez shared how just before attending the council meeting, ironically conducted literally 100 yards or so from one of the transmission lines PG&E could shut down, TV news was reporting the National Weather Service expects wildfire conditions later this weekend.

Those conditions that could trigger PG&E pulling the plug are a red flag warning declared by the weather service, humidity levels 20 percent or below, sustained winds generally above 25 miles per hour with gusts in excess of 45 mph, and the lack of moisture in vegetation.

Manteca Fire Battalion Chief Dave Marques who is coordinating the City of Manteca’s emergency plan pointed PG&E has already shut the power off in parts of Northern California once this year. He added the fire season now extends as late as into December.

“Two of the worst wildfires last year were in December,” he noted.

Part of Marques’ presentation was to make it clear what the city could do and what it couldn’t do in the event the power goes out for two to five days. One of the things the city can’t do is provide its 83,750 residents with food or water.

It is why the city is advising all residents to have what they would need to live for five days without electricity. That’s keeping in mind a survey the city conducted revealed that perhaps 20 percent of the business that sell food or water have backup power to stay open for no more than 48 hours. Most supermarkets have generators just large enough to keep from losing frozen and refrigerated food. At the same time gas stations would not be able to operate.

One of the biggest concerns is the railroad crossings. Manteca has nine at-grade crossing on Union Pacific’s main valley line and four at-grade crossings on the line that heads over the Altamont Pass. Marques said UP has confirmed crossing have backup batteries with a six hour power supply. After that the crossing arms and flashing red lights become inoperable. That means outside of train horns there will be nothing to alert the tens thousands upon ten thousands of people who cross the tracks of the 50 plus trains that use the two lines on a daily basis.

Union Pacific representatives indicated they may try to scramble to get generators placed at crossings to power the crossing arms and flashers in place when the PG&E cuts the power. Councilman Gary Singh wondered out loud whether that would be a realistic solution given they are likely to be stolen.

Manteca, based on conditions that unfold, may have to declare an emergency and impose a mandatory curfew to assure public safety. Also given there is only a six-hour supply of treated surface water at any given time, a two to five day power outage within the first six hours will strain the city’s ability to deliver water especially since not all of the municipal wells have generators.

This will mean once the power outage starts all non-essential use of water will have to stop. No landscaping can be watered plus showers and baths may have to be curtailed. Reduced water will make it difficult to flush toilets although the wastewater treatment plant will be operating using a back-up generator.

The city is seeking to secure a generator large enough to keep the Manteca Senior Center air conditioned and to provide charging stations for medical devices needed to keep people alive. The senior center will be converted into a shelter for residents with medical and health conditions.

The city is also taking steps to keep their supply of fuel topped off so emergency vehicles can continue to operate.

Community Emergency Response Team volunteers will be enlisted to make welfare checks in areas of the city where there are concentrations of residents vulnerable to heat illness and such

The local dialysis center has no backup generator. The city is making contingency plans to use Manteca Transit buses and is working with the Manteca Unified School District to use some of their buses if needed to transport dialysis patients to the closest treatment center that has power.

Marques said both Kaiser Hospital and Doctors Hospital of Manteca have confirmed they have backup generators and the ability to operate them for several days. However, they will  move patients to the closet hospital that has power and work to keep the emergency room and other essential emergency services open.

The city has also indicated that you can expect:

  • Traffic lights and street lights will not be working.
  • Most schools and businesses will be closed.
  • Due to increased call volume emergency services will have longer response times.
  • Water and sewer services will be functional but at a reduced level. Citizens will be asked to refrain from non-essential water use.
  • Extended outages may affect cell phones.
  • Citizens with critical medical or health issues will be directed to a designated shelter site.
  • Citizens can expect essential services such as Fire Department, Police Department, and Public Works to continue operating with as little disruption as possible.
  • The Manteca Senior Center is a designated shelter site. Efforts are currently underway to update the facility’s emergency power source.
  • Manteca has a dedicated Emergency Operations Center. When activated it is capable of managing large scale disasters such as prolonged power shortages.
  • Public safety and sanitary utility services will be a top priority.
  • Staff is assessing private contracts for generators and diesel delivery for city facilities.
  • When notified of an impending PG&E power shutoff the city will notify citizens on social media and Nixel.
  • All essential city employees and all firefighters and police officers will be called back to work.
  • Mutual aid from unaffected areas will be utilized.
  • Outages in larger regional areas will increasingly strain city resources.

The city has requested PG&E conduct an open house in Manteca to address citizen concerns.

Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu urged residents repeatedly during the meeting to prepare for “the new norm” and have supplies on hand to go up to five days without electricity. PG&E’s website has a list of suggested items to prepare for living without power.

“Take care of yourself,” Cantu said. “Take care of your neighbors. Be prepared. This is the new norm.”

Cantu made it clear that most people in Manteca are not big fans of PG&E. “I don’t want to be crude but people in this town are pissed,” Cantu said.