US Power Outages Leave People with Disabilities Vulnerable

Posted on June 9, 2021

Recent temporary power outages by the US Company for power supply Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in California left many people with disabilities in a life and death situation. This step was intended to prevent the risk of a wildfire sparked by windblown power lines. However, this decision jeopardized the safety and health of people with disabilities, people with serious health conditions, and older people who relied on appliances and assistive technology run on electricity. 

During a power outage, a woman with multiple sclerosis reported that hours after she lost power, she was told to evacuate as a fire had erupted nearby. But her car was trapped behind the electric garage door, which she could not lift on her own. Without help in sight, she waited until she finally found help. 

Unannounced power outages are as bad as a natural disaster for disabled people, especially brain-injured victims who may have compromised cognitive, motor, speech, vision, and hearing complications. Additional costs of expensive backup generators for electrically run devices, extra batteries for mobiles and laptops are incurred.. For those like Ben Faus, whose breathing machine stopped working in the middle of the night and had to be hospitalized, power outages can prove to a stressful affair as well. 

Equipment such as motorized wheelchairs, refrigerated medications, ventilators, oxygen generators, elevators, and heating devices made life for the disabled at home crippled. Large parts of Northern California were left without electricity for hours, inconveniencing and frustrated thousands of residents and heightened anger and anxiety among brain injury victims. The power company did provide charging stations in some locations to facilitate the 'medically fragile consumers.'

The unforeseen power outages put many people into dangerous situations. Many people with disabilities prefer to live in the comfort of their homes, equipped with assistive technology and available caregiving services rather than extended stays in hospitals and nursing homes. The recent blackouts affected nearly 700,000 PG&E customers in California, and many homes were without electricity for more than 72 hours. With the elevator being 'out of order,' people with disabilities were trapped in their houses as they could not risk taking the stairs.  

For people with disabilities, moving out and relocating to a hotel outside the affected area and disrupting a regular routine is enough to spark anxiety and cause hindrance towards their recovery progress. Furthermore, for millions of Americans that live below the poverty line, especially elderly citizens and those with a disability or recovering from a brain injury, such power burnouts can often be a matter of life and death. According to the CDC, power outages that aggravate existing medical conditions are the most common cause of death. 

The sad state of affairs where wealthy people could use generators to keep their wine collections cool and tech giants like Google and Apple glowed as they remained fully powered, the less affluent neighborhoods sat in darkness. People fought for their lives as life-supporting machines dwindled out, and many lost their lives as their loved ones watched them slip away. 

The California State guidelines have been revised to mandate that power companies should provide a minimum of 24-48 hours' notice before a planned outage. Furthermore, the state relies on utility companies to reach out to customers with disabilities and chronic illnesses, however, a clear picture of vulnerable customers is not available yet. Also, state regulators feel that unpredictable weather changes may not make advance notice always possible. 

Medical baseline program for people requiring 'critical care' is being advocated by PG&E. people are learning about this program through their healthcare facilitators and through outreach conducted through automated texts, calls and emails. However, many who qualify for it are not included as it is an opt-in service. So it is advisable for all caregivers and people with disabilities to be prepared for a power outage.