PG&E

The logo for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Pacific Gas and Electric cut off power to more than 2 million people earlier this month a precaution the utility said was to prevent their equipment from sparking a wildfire many people looking for information online were met with "failed to load" and other error messages.

The utility's website crashed multiple times, a persistent issue that the the state's Public Utilities Commission called a "major failure...during the most critical times" that "left Californians scrambling for information."

The company's CEO, Bill Johnson, acknowledged the utility was "not adequately prepared" and pledged to do better.

Then on Tuesday, the day before the another blackout affecting nearly 200,000 customers was set to begin, the company's new website crashed again for 45 minutes. That afternoon, in a now-deleted tweet, PG&E shared a link to a seemingly nonexistent website, pspsupdates.com. Rather than offer information to the utility's customers, the link PG&E tweeted suggested the pspsupdates.com web domain is for sale.

At a press conference Wednesday evening, as shutoffs began across Northern California Wednesday evening, Johnson assured that the company's site is now "fully operational and working normally."

"The website is working well, stable, and we're handling all the incoming" web traffic, Johnson told reporters at a press conference. Neither he nor Lopez addressed why the company tweeted out a website that doesn't seem to exist.

PG&E has a "major social responsibility" to make sure people can access information about the shutoffs through multiple communication channels -- especially when the utility is the reason the emergency is happening, said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

"It's preposterous to even make a statement that they didn't anticipate so many people would go to the website," said Redlener. "I don't know what they were thinking or expecting, but shutting down power for 800,000 people, for them not to expect an enormous amount of traffic to their website really stretches their credibility here."

Since the first major shutoff earlier this month, the utility says it has increased memory and processing units in its data center, moved features of its website to the cloud so that it's easier to add capacity, and contracted with a company to make sure their website can handle sharp swings in web traffic.

Lopez emphasized that the new website was only down briefly Tuesday, and said the company has beefed up teams to monitor the site and ensure reliability.

"We were aware that customers were having trouble [Tuesday], but our teams worked on multiple fronts and with our third party providers to make sure it's functioning quickly," Lopez said, adding that the company began notifying customers by email, text and phone calls about the outage 48 hours in advance.

Still, as the blackouts hit 17 counties on Wednesday, some complained they were receiving conflicting information.

"I've received two text messages from PG&E, one yesterday evening and another one just now about my power has or will be shutoff for a PSPS," tweeted David Palinsky. "I go to the PSPS updates website and when I check my address, it says I'm not impacted. PG&E needs to do better."

Reliable access and clear and accurate information is crucial during emergencies, said Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the NCDP, who said companies like PG&E should see themselves as first responders, given the utility's role as the sole provider of electricity for large parts of California.

"Although [the shutoffs] are not classified as a disaster, they're putting people in positions where it's disrupting life-sustaining equipment and connections, and the only thing you really have is time to prepare and adjust," said Schlegelmilch. "It's not just a question of customer service, but are they providing information to people that they need to stay healthy, and in extreme cases, to stay alive."

Public communication should be a top priority for PG&E, he said.

"In this day and age, your web and social media presence is a majority component of how people seek information," said Schlegelmilch. "It's really important they are stable, and not confusing, and of course what we saw was the opposite of that."

Ahmed Banafa, a professor at San Jose State University who lectures on cybersecurity and e-commerce, noted that retail websites often increase their bandwidth temporarily to make sure they website can handle heavy traffic, particularly during big sales like Black Friday.

"It's all about resources, budget and planning," said Banafa. "It's something the retail industry learned the hard way, on days like Black Friday -- it's going to be better to be over capacity with resources than to be under capacity."

One strategy is to create a mirror of a website, essentially recreating the content on a company's main site in different locations, so that if the original website fails, visitors are redirected to a back-up site. PG&E should also have been conducting stress tests to mimic traffic volume to see what their website could handle, Banafa said.

Banafa and Schlegelmilch both emphasized that most people won't just check the website one time, but might refresh and check the website multiple times a day, including people who aren't slated to have their power shut off.

Lopez, the PG&E spokesperson, did not respond to questions about how exactly the company prepared its website ahead of the first major shutoff earlier this month.

But, in an Oct. 17 letter to the CPUC, the company said it has since created backup sites and is "stress testing its website to accommodate 2.5 million users accessing the site in one hour." The company has also increased monitoring of web traffic of its site so that staff are alerted when usage levels reach 60 percent, a decrease from the previous threshold of 80 percent, the letter said.

Even 911 call centers get overwhelmed, Schlegelmilch said, and increasing resources to prepare for a disaster is challenging.

"That being said, it should be anticipated going forward, and probably should have been anticipated already," he said.

"I credit PG&E for learning their lesson, but they seem to be always behind the curve on this."

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