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California and the West

Cities Prepare to Cope With Blackouts

Energy: Backup generators are secured and emergency plans will be in place when the lights go out. Experience with earthquakes has come in handy.

April 22, 2001|BETTINA BOXALL and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sacramento is installing wading pools. Riverside is locking up spare megawatts. Santa Barbara just installed a backup generator at its sewage treatment plant.

This summer's expected rolling blackouts could shut down some of the most basic municipal services--everything from drinking water to traffic lights. With that in mind, cities up and down the state are making plans.

Many have a head start, thanks to California's experience with disasters and the overblown Y2K warnings of 1999. A number of cities installed backup power for essential services in case of millennium-related outages that never materialized.

Likewise, major earthquakes have taught municipalities the value of emergency readiness.

"After the '94 [Northridge] earthquake, we made sure we are so prepared here," said Judy Rambeau, an assistant to Santa Monica's city manager.

This disaster is a bit more predictable than the next big quake: Virtually everyone believes the state's electricity crisis will mean blackouts--perhaps as soon as May--when Californians rev up their air conditioners for hot weather.

Cities are posting blackout tips on their Web sites, scheduling town hall meetings on what to expect during outages and waging public-awareness campaigns.

Santa Monica suggests that people keep gasoline in their cars and extra cash on hand; both gas pumps and ATMs need electricity to operate. Modesto says that if someone needs cooling down and there's no ice, a package of frozen peas will work just fine. San Francisco is reminding drivers not to whiz past dead traffic lights.

In the Central Valley, where the summers sizzle, officials are looking for ways to counter air-conditioning shutdowns.

Sacramento is adding a half-dozen neighborhood wading pools to help residents cool off.

"We're trying to create an environment so people won't immediately head home and crank on the air-conditioner," said Liz Brenner, a city spokeswoman.

Fresno, Santa Rosa and other cities are designating cool zones to which they can transport those who are particularly vulnerable to the heat.

"To you and I, the air-conditioning going off for a couple of hours is a little irritating," Santa Rosa Police Chief Mike Dunbaugh said. "But for somebody with a significant health issue, we'll be prepared to do whatever we have to do."

Heat-distressed Santa Rosa residents will be able to call emergency crews for a ride to health facilities with backup generators that keep the air-conditioning running.

In Fresno, officials are considering using the local bus system to take elderly and disabled people to gymnasiums and community facilities equipped with backup power.

Many cities are trying to minimize the effect of blackouts by saving energy. Riverside, for example, is launching an aggressive conservation campaign that is expected to cost as much as $5 million.

Riverside has its own utility but is still subject to blackouts because it is tied into the state power grid. Conservation would reduce the severity of outages within city limits.

In addition, the city is developing a partnership with UC Riverside, by far its largest energy consumer. On June 1, the university will supply the city with three diesel generators that can produce as much as 6 megawatts. That, coupled with a pledge by the university to reduce energy consumption by 2 megawatts, is likely to save the campus from outages that could hurt agricultural, defense and aerospace research projects.

Ready for Gridlock

The specter of dead traffic signals during summer evening rush hours is sending a number of cities into action. Some, like Laguna Hills and Modesto, are identifying busy intersections to which they could deploy traffic officers if the lights stop working.

In San Diego, police have launched a public education campaign to warn residents not to clog the 911 emergency lines if the power goes out and to remember that when traffic signals go dark, every intersection becomes a four-way stop.

During brief outages this spring, the 911 line instantly began fielding calls and numerous fender-benders were reported at intersections.

"Unless you have a life-threatening emergency when the power goes off, please don't call 911, call SDG&E," said Sgt. Bill Wolf, director of the Police Department's critical incident management unit.

Working with San Diego Gas & Electric Co., police hope for up to 30 minutes' notice before an outage so that traffic cops can be stationed at major intersections to prevent gridlock.

Sacramento County is spending $500,000 to install battery backups to keep the signals operating in more than 100 key intersections along heavily used commuter routes.

Betsy Braziel, a county spokeswoman, said officials' biggest worry is getting the backup systems by summer. "It doesn't help us much if we can't get them installed until October."

Santa Barbara is taking advantage of a state energy grant to install new traffic lights that will use a fraction of the electricity consumed by conventional ones.

If cities don't already have backup power to keep crucial services going, they are getting it.

Mike Grimes, public works facilities manager for Santa Barbara, said the city just installed a large generator at its sewage treatment plant.

For all the planning, Robert Quesada, deputy city manager of Fresno, says getting ready for rolling blackouts is a bit like preparing for war. "You don't know how you will do things until you have to. I think people will rise to the occasion."

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Times staff writers Scott Gold, Tony Perry and Thuy-Doan Le contributed to this story.

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