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PG&E's Blackouts Panic California's Vulnerable Population

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Right. So these planned power outages have so far left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity in Northern California. The blackouts are causing panic, especially for people who rely on power for medical devices in their homes. For them, electricity could mean a matter of life and death.

April Dembosky from member station KQED in San Francisco has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF PA ANNOUNCEMENT)

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Batteries and flashlights have been flying off the shelves at this Home Depot. The section where the generators usually are is empty.

JEFF VAN HORN: We got a shipment in yesterday of 18 of them, and we had people in the aisles waiting for them as they came in.

DEMBOSKY: But it's not just about keeping the lights on at home or making sure the milk doesn't spoil.

HORN: They waited for, like, an hour.

DEMBOSKY: Store clerk Jeff Van Horn worries about the people who need these generators just to breathe.

HORN: You know, oxygen or something like a machine they have to be on that's plugged in at night. I mean, it's a scary, scary thought, really.

DEMBOSKY: Pacific Gas and Electric started cutting power earlier this week to avoid sparking a wildfire during dry, windy weather. The utility estimates more than 32,000 customers who rely on electricity to operate ventilators, dialysis machines and other health electronics are being affected by the blackouts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

DEMBOSKY: But nurses who care for people at home say a lot of their patients aren't included in those numbers and haven't been notified.

SHARON: Hospice East Bay, this is Sharon.

DEMBOSKY: Patients have been calling, asking what they should do.

SHARON: Certainly, I can get you to someone that can help you with that. Hold on, please.

DEMBOSKY: For people who don't have $800 to buy their own generator, hospice workers are making sure they have enough backup oxygen tanks to make it through the blackouts.

CINDY HATTON: We have some patients on 24-hour oxygen. They're going through five, six tanks a day.

DEMBOSKY: Hospice President Cindy Hatton says they have about 260 people in their care.

HATTON: You've got a lot of people out there scrambling, going - driving all over the place, delivering tanks and picking up empty ones and switching out. It's a lot. It is a lot.

DEMBOSKY: Staff had to buy a special egg crate foam for patients with skin conditions who usually rely on airflow mattresses that need to be plugged in. And Hatton's warning families with patients who use electric beds that they could be stuck in one position for four or five days.

HATTON: What we've done is tell them to keep the bed either up or down, wherever that's the most comfortable for the patient.

JAVETTE: It's definitely frustrating and is very concerning.

DEMBOSKY: Javette's aunt uses an oxygen machine and takes insulin that could go bad if her refrigerator goes out. She asked that we not use her last name because her aunt is in a vulnerable position. They've been stressed, figuring out if her aunt should rent or buy a generator.

JAVETTE: But the issue was, was it worth the investment?

DEMBOSKY: They also considered taking her to a hotel. But Javette says there have been so many mixed messages about the power outages - when they're happening, where they're happening, whether they're happening.

JAVETTE: For example, they said last night it was a good chance that there would be power outages - but there wasn't. So that would have been a false alarm and money spent on a hotel, and the power didn't go out.

DEMBOSKY: Javette says she's having trouble sleeping at night, not knowing if the power's gone out and her aunt is unable to call her - or if the oxygen went off, and her aunt didn't know it. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "MIGRATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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