Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center, 2180 Milvia. City offices. Photo: Emilie Raguso

While PG&E has come under fire all week for its handling of the widespread power shutoff, the city of Berkeley caught a few of the embers Wednesday too.

Hundreds of Twitter users were angered by messages from the city telling Berkeley Hills residents with accessibility needs to “use their own resources to get out,” or call 911 if they can’t. The numerous people who responded accused the city of callously telling vulnerable residents to fend for themselves or rack up a steep medical bill.

A city spokesman said the social media chatter does not reflect the “massive mobilization of city staff” actively working throughout the outage to identify and contact affected residents with high needs. Berkeley has also been pushing out resource lists and safety advisories on a number of platforms while PG&E’s website has been down.

The first tweet that generated the buzz was sent from the city of Berkeley’s account Tuesday evening.

“Hills residents! If you live in a potential @PGE4Me shutoff area and have accessibility needs or use life sustaining medical equipment that is compromised during an outage, please plan to evacuate and also call 311 so we can get your information,” the city tweeted.

Later that night, Melissa Male, a local disability rights advocate, responded, “What is the city doing to help those who don’t have the means or ability to evacuate? Where are they to go to? Are there accessible shelters set up?”

“Hi Melissa,” the city replied the next afternoon. “We are asking those in the potentially affected area who are power-dependent for medical reasons to use their own resources to get out. If they are unable to relocate and power loss will cause an immediate life threat, call 911 for transport to an Emergency Room.” Berkeley reiterated the message in an additional tweet.

Within hours, dozens of Twitter users were calling the city’s message “irresponsible,” “shameful,” or worse.

“What kind of crisis management is it to tell the elderly and disabled who require power to ‘use their own resources?’ Most of those people have limited resources!” said @dollierot. Others said the city or PG&E should foot the bill for anyone forced to call 911.

Male told Berkeleyside she was offended by the city’s seemingly “flippant” response to her question.

“Here in Berkeley you have a very large concentration of people in the disability community,” said Male, who chairs the board of the Center for Independent Living and has a disability herself. “Not everybody who lives in the hills is privileged to be able to pack up and go somewhere. I’m really surprised there wasn’t more planning.” She said the city should have partnered with local disability organizations to open up temporary shelters or provide vouchers.

The city, which had to snap into action when PG&E announced its likely outage a couple days before it was scheduled to hit, does have staff working hard to assist the highest-needs residents during the shutoff, said spokesman Matthai Chakko.

Grizzly Peak Boulevard residents woke up to darkness Thursday morning. Photo: Kate Rauch

A public safety power shutoff is an unusual situation. When there’s an officially declared natural disaster, “state and regional health systems coordinate resources to help people with medical needs,” Chakko told Berkeleyside. However, Berkeley has worked for years to identify local residents who have what the state calls “access and functional needs.”

When Berkeley got word of the planned PG&E outage, “we created a city task force with people from a number of city departments to identify and reach these households,” Chakko said. That task force, called BEACON, includes representatives from a number of local disability organizations, including the Center for Independent Living, Chakko said. By Wednesday afternoon, before parts of the hills went dark, staff had called 42 high-needs people in the expected outage area and visited 14. Aside from one person who wouldn’t engage with city staff, all the people they visited had a “good plan in place,” he said. Thursday, the city is visiting 60 additional people, he added after publication.

Beyond that targeted assistance, Berkeley police and firefighters are also extra-staffed and on high alert this week.

The controversial tweets were telling “those who can, who have available resources and can take care of themselves, to do so. At the same time we want to do our own work to do outreach,” Chakko said.

He said a location analysis showed that most of the critical responses to the city’s tweets were not sent from Berkeley. (However Berkeleyside heard from another East Bay resident, who’s in PG&E’s Medical Baseline program, that there’s been a “backlash” from the local disability community against the tweets.)

“We’re less concerned about what people say about us on Twitter than the actions we take,” Chakko said. “We’re trying to help people very directly through our actions.”

Male, who uses an electric wheelchair and depends on home medical equipment and personal assistance, said she hopes such actions can reach everyone who’s in need.

Male lives in the Berkeley flats and is unaffected by the current outage, but knows future blackouts are likely to come — and hopes she and her neighbors have somewhere to go if they blanket the rest of the city.

This story was updated with additional information from the city of Berkeley provided after publication, and to clarify the number of people city staff visited. 

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...