As the lights went out across swaths of Napa County for the third time this month, stores in the city of Napa once again became a lifeline for those left without power – whether in the city or beyond.
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Visitors lined up to lay in supplies of bottled water, nonperishable foods and other necessities as they prepared for an extended wait for their electricity to return. Others found their way to coffee shops and any place that could offer a Wi-Fi signal or a few bars of cellular reception, to keep up with fast-changing news of the blackouts, windstorms and fires striking the North Bay all at once.
While much of American Canyon was left in the dark on Sunday and people in Calistoga were told to get ready for a possible evacuation, the South Napa Marketplace remained open for business on a wind-whipped Sunday morning. Among those heading to the shopping center on Soscol Avenue was Stephen Gould, who joined dozens of others at the Starbucks – many of them holding a coffee cup in one hand and a smartphone in the other.
“The first one was three days and the next was two days,” said Gould, who had driven down from darkened Calistoga to get away from the town’s third outage that began Saturday. “And nobody has said anything; I keep hearing this one could go through tomorrow as well.”
Though he had repeated his pre-emergency routine of buying water and food supplies, getting cash from the bank and refueling his car, the latest incident had wearied him enough to compel him to “catch a movie and breakfast and try to make a day out of it, as best I can.”
A week away from a move to Denver, Gould regarded the repeated outages as an ugly but unsurprising coda to his 22 years living in the Golden State.
“I’ve just had enough; I just can’t do California anymore,” he said as another gust swept through the café patio. “This is just ridiculous – California’s taking a toll on me.”
The cycle of weather warnings, preparation and blackouts also wore on Napa residents like Tracey Upton, whose home escaped Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s planned shutoff on Saturday before the arrival of high winds in the North Bay – only to be unexpectedly cut off along with 3,000 other customers at 6:30 a.m. Sunday.
“It’s just frustrating – I’m not blaming this one on PG&E, but (after) decades and decades of not fixing or repairing things, these events will be more and more commonplace,” she said.
Though Upton was equipped with a small generator, batteries and pre-frozen water bottles for her refrigerator, communication was the one thing she could not keep up without heading into town.
“I came here to get a signal, just to keep up on what’s happening,” she said. “It’s just so isolating; I literally have to leave the house so I can get in contact with the world.”
Across the parking lot inside the Raley’s, bags of ice were much in evidence in the shopping carts lined up at checkout counters. The still-open grocery shelves and refrigerator cases drew shoppers from as far afield as Occidental west of Sebastopol, which Tracy Stanley had fled Saturday night with her husband and two teenage children to stay at a Napa home – even though that home also was blacked out.
Among the customers waiting to return to their darkened homes, one felt especially thankful despite the month’s repeated inconveniences.
“It could be so much worse,” said Robert Freeman of Napa. “Today, I was grateful to have a propane stove and running water. (The outage) costs you a little bit, but it doesn’t make me angry.
“You look at Santa Rosa, I know some people that barely got out and lost their homes. If this is the way it has to happen until there’s a better plan, I’m on board; better to be safe than sorry.”
While business at the south end of Napa moved on largely as usual – or even busier than usual – it was a different story on the city’s north side. While those neighborhoods escaped PG&E’s planned power cut-off that affected more than 30,000 customers countywide, an unexpected outage struck at 6:30 Sunday morning, leaving buildings dark and traffic signals flashing red along Soscol Avenue and Trancas Street – even in front of Queen of the Valley Medical Center, which turned to backup generator power.
In a shopping center otherwise marked by darkened windows and empty parking spaces, the Lucky at Soscol Avenue and Jefferson Street continued supplying the essentials. Inside an almost completely darkened supermarket, cashiers briskly bagged water bottles, canned and boxed foods, and bags upon bags of ice. Those entering around noon stepped around a worker pushing yet another pallet of ice through the front door, the grocery’s fourth shipment of the day.
Though a few touches of normality remained – like a father and his young daughter inspecting pumpkins in a curbside display – the grocery’s emergency footing was obvious. “Those are our last C batteries,” one cashier told a passer-by, within sight of chiller cases covered with plastic sheeting and an aisle marked off-limits by yellow caution tape.
One woman living nearby had come to Lucky’s to stock her kitchen – then stayed to draw on her skills from a past journalism career to keep other shoppers up to date on the blackouts and fires across the Bay Area.
“I came for groceries and found out nobody really knew what was going on,” said Laura Dayton, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and Vallejo Times Herald. Using a smartphone and updates from a friend listening to news radio updates from a parked car, she scribbled developments onto two notebooks to share with people entering and leaving the market, reaching about 30 people in her first hour.
For another shopper at the Lucky’s, gratitude for avoiding direct danger was mingled with frustration not only with PG&E’s failures, but with the state of infrastructure generally. “It’s not just PG&E – it’s the bridges, the water systems, it’s everything that’s been neglected for so long,” said Paula French.
Back home in Napa, French lacked lights after the Sunday morning outage, but still had a gas range and outdoor grill to rely on – and hope that this blackout, at least, would not be a sign of danger.
“I’m planning for the worst,” she said, “and hoping for the best.”
“I’ve just had enough; I just can’t do California anymore,” said the customer at Starbucks as another gust swept through the café patio. “This is just ridiculous – California’s taking a toll on me.”