Power Blackouts Spark Medical, Financial Emergencies for California’s Most Vulnerable

Photo credit: iStock.

When the power went out at Vicky Jaque’s house in Santa Clarita last month, she found herself desperately scrambling to save the life of her son.

It was the height of California’s fire season, when dozens of fires raged across the state in a matter of weeks and power companies imposed widespread electricity shutoffs in an attempt to prevent their equipment from sparking blazes. For most people affected, these shutoffs where a huge inconvenience. But for Jaque and her son Cameron, 20, they were a matter of life or death.

Cameron, 20, has mitochondrial disease, among other health diagnoses, and is dependent on intravenous fluids to keep him alive. His environment requires careful temperature control and his intravenous medicines, food and liquids must be stored in the refrigerator so they don’t go bad. His survival requires electricity.

Jaque and her husband have a back-up generator, but when the power went out, the machine unexpectedly failed. In a panic, Jaque started calling all the hotels in the region, trying to find one with a full-size refrigerator where they could bring their son and all his equipment so he wouldn’t have to be hospitalized.

“It was really very scary,” she said. “If we don’t have those IV fluids, he’s in the hospital … I don’t think (power companies) understand what it takes to get somebody with medical instability and disability out and into a different environment.”

A state auditor’s report released this week found that California is unprepared to protect its most vulnerable residents during natural disasters, including those who have disabilities or are medically fragile. That’s despite the fact that a quarter of the state’s population lives in an area at risk of wildfire, and 20 percent of Californians are either over the age of 65 or have a disability.

The auditor reviewed emergency procedures in three counties at elevated risk for wildfires: Butte, Sonoma and Ventura. None of the counties had adequate plans for alerting, evacuating and sheltering residents during an emergency, particularly people with disabilities. Additionally, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services failed to support counties in coming up with strategies to help these vulnerable people when a natural disaster strikes, the auditor found.

Californians who are medically fragile and have disabilities are among the most vulnerable groups of people during power outages and wildfire evacuations. Lauren Giardina, a managing attorney with Disability Rights California, which provides legal help to people with disabilities, said she’s heard alarming stories of people losing the means to power ventilators and other critical medical equipment during outages, or being stuck without temperature controls or access to refrigerated medicines and special foods.

Some people with disabilities can’t even leave their buildings because they depend on electricity-powered elevators to get them outside, Giardina added.

“It’s hard enough to evacuate and go somewhere in any circumstance, but when you’re also thinking about dietary needs, medication, equipment—you’re just making it that much more challenging,” she said. “It’s just very, very difficult for a lot of people.”

Thankfully for the Jaque family, a neighbor was able to help fix their backup generator four hours after the power went out. That saved the family from having to evacuate, and was just enough time to prevent Cameron’s $10,000-worth of refrigerated medicines and food from going bad. The family is also planning to buy yet another generator, just in case their current one fails again.

But Jaque said she worries about other families that are caring for medically fragile people who may not have the resources to find and book an appropriate hotel in an emergency, or can’t afford backup power.

“We’re the lucky ones,” she said. The authorities “have to figure something out, because I think this really puts people with disabilities—many of whom live on disability (benefits) and have very limited means—in a really tough spot.”

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