A Look Back At The ‘1st Great Fort Bragg Blackout’
When I got into the city on Monday morning, winds were blowing straight at massive fires at 93 miles-an-hour. I was hearing rumblings about 30,000 acres burned, Windsor and Healdsburg evacuated — 2.8 million Californians losing their power.
PG&E pulled the Fort Bragg plug Saturday morning and casually tossed the city into the opening scenes of a science fiction masterpiece. It was a blackout and it was a thought experiment. It was a peek under the covers at the naked reality of our resilience as a community. It was a test of our character and a test of planning.
There were two gas stations in operation. Eel River Fuels and Chevron. As I drove by, Chevron had a kind of high-tension disaster movie look, with flashing lights and trucks ranged around the lot. A long steady line of hard-eyed drivers wrapped around three blocks — three BIG blocks. Down the highway, the locally owned Eel River station had a line running both directions north and south that ran for two blocks each way. I picked them. We got to the point we were inching forward and then sitting still. At about 10:30 am, they ran out of gas. Everybody peeled off with dispatch and grim courtesy.
When the Eel River station went down, the counter people at the Chevron heard the clarion trumpet of duty. No gas would have been the last straw. The hard workers at Chevron never wavered. Brandy wouldn’t tell me her last name, but when the lines of cars aiming at the gas station snaked around the block — and across Cyprus Street — Brandy was in the intersection moving traffic with the same courteous efficiency of a New York City traffic cop. She kept traffic flowing and moved that long line with unpretentious bravado. I heard later that Councilman Bernie Norvell was doing the job later in the day.
By midmorning James Pruit, of modest demeanor, was at the Chevron standing beside his gleaming 86,000-gallon big-rig tank truck pumping gas in faster than a relentless line of cars could pump it out. He told me they had it under control — and another truck was on the way. The cops descended on the station like it was ground zero. Fort Bragg got gas.
Kelly Brodensky kept the pharmacy by the Mendocino Coast Hospital open. Everybody got their meds. Were it not for Kelly Brodensky, the nonexistent city emergency plan might have meant death for some people. Kelly stepped up and kept the pharmacy doors open — like Brandy directing traffic. Like Headlands with their brave and inadequate “no expresso” coffee. We did it ourselves.
Safeway manager Zeke was in high-stress mode. Some “time-to-loot” impulse had homeless people just walking in and dashing out. The one I saw had a case of beer on his shoulder. I assume the eight Fort Bragg cops had their hands full otherwise. That’s part of the story too.
I heard on the street that Safeway threw out tons of food. Thawing pizzas and cold cuts floated around in the thawing ice cream. Starbucks sent sandwiches to the PG&E tents, but their dumpster was also full. Nobody called the Food Bank. Harvest Market never missed a beat.
As the days ticked by, Fort Bragg retained its optimism, cheerfulness and willingness to help. At Safeway, some credit/debit cards weren’t working. There was a mini-epidemic of people “paying it forward” to strangers in the checkout line.
The police station, the conference room at City Hall and the main center of blackout resilience — the PG&E “resource center” in the CV Starr parking lot — were open for device charging. All of them were packed, but the big center of community assembly was the CV Starr Center. There were two tents, no rules, no cops, coffee and pastries. There were NO problems and a protracted intense community conversation on the almost comical degree of local unpreparedness. Even the homes with solar did not have electricity.
The main topic of hundreds of conversations was the complete absence of a City plan. The $56 million budget that the City of Fort Bragg dispenses every year includes a dizzying diversity of consultants and communities. Every two weeks, the City Council busts a gut to tell us how wisely they spend our money.
I remember back when they had the emergency response workshop on a weekday afternoon at Town Hall. Top county Sheriff Tom Allman was in attendance to tell us how to pack an overnight bag, lunch and take a flashlight. That would have done you a lot of good. They happened to mention that once there was a plan to stockpile food for the county. These days the containers were empty and rusting away in various strategic locations.
The City council knew the power was going down for months, and when the rubber met the road, it was the cops, the individual heroes and the good-natured patience of regular Fort Bragg people that got us through.
The City Manager flew back to the city. The City Council was in it right along with the rest of us, but the $56 million of annual city expenditure didn’t help a damn bit.
There are many ways to touch the core of what it means to be a community. It turns out that a blackout is one of them.