Robert Smith, 76, chose to sleep in his van on Tuesday night because he wasn’t sure if he would be isolated from resources if he went back upstairs to his fifth-floor apartment. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Seniors at Harriet Tubman Terrace in South Berkeley were without power for almost 24 hours after a “bomb cyclone” winter storm knocked out PG&E service to over 10,000 customers in Berkeley.

Elevators weren’t working in the six-story building and there were no utilities, including water heating, between 4 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Wednesday. In addition, the affordable housing complex isn’t equipped like an assisted living facility with generators that power individual units, according to the building owner.

Robert Smith, 76, lives in a fifth-floor apartment and uses a wheelchair. When the power went out Tuesday evening, he decided to stay downstairs and sleep in his van in the building garage instead of risking being stranded and potentially isolated upstairs.

If he had stayed in his apartment, he said he would have had to wait for emergency personnel to bring him back to the ground floor without an elevator.

“I’m always thinking — what if, what if, what if?” said Smith, a former PG&E lineman, Army veteran and American Red Cross volunteer. “What things do I have to have with me so that I can be independent and still be OK?”

He has his van stocked with a portable toilet, extra water, charging stations and heavy-duty clothing in case of emergencies. But in 40 years of living in Berkeley, “nothing to this degree has ever happened before.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Foundation Housing, the HUD-subsidized building owner, provided lunch, coffee and pastries in the community room on the ground floor. Residents gathered around to eat sandwiches and charge devices with small generators while they waited for power to be restored in their homes.

Khadija Ennair was concerned the food in her fridge would go bad before the start of Ramadan, which begins Wednesday evening. She also couldn’t read the Quran in the evening, which she said brings her peace. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

In an email to residents and the city, Foundation Housing representative Cassandra Palanza said the owners have been in constant communication with PG&E and 211 to secure resources for tenants — including the possibility of reimbursements for hotel stays if the outage continued. She said the building’s generator is working to power emergency lighting and the fire panel, but isn’t designed to support apartments.

“Keep in mind, this is an act of god weather scenario,” Palanza wrote in the email.

Power was expected to be restored just before midnight on Wednesday in South Berkeley, according to PG&E’s outage map, but residents said it came back around 3:30 p.m.

The power outage at the senior housing complex was challenging for many elderly residents, who have been navigating a lack of heat, ongoing renovations and negotiations with the building owner and management since it changed hands about two years ago.

But residents said Tuesday’s services amid the outage, including meals and blankets, were helpful.

Khadija Ennair has lived in the building for 12 years and said the ongoing renovations have been demoralizing and depressing, but “we’re happy they brought food for us.”

The first night of Ramadan is Wednesday evening, and Ennair was concerned the food in her fridge would go bad before she began her monthlong fast. Thankfully, the power came back Wednesday afternoon.

Celestine Fitzhugh was worried about using the stairs in the building when the elevators were out of service during the power outage. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

“Walking down here was an adventure,” said Celestine Fitzhugh, who also lives on the fifth floor of the building. She said she’s “leery” of the slatted stairs outside the building, which can be dangerous.

Her window was also leaking last night, and a large puddle formed near her bathroom door, but she said she covered it with clothes from her hamper before she slipped or fell.

Other residents came to the community room Wednesday to charge important medical devices, like heartbeat monitors, which ran out of battery during the outage.

The storm downed dozens of trees throughout the city, damaged vehicles and caused widespread power outages in Berkeley and throughout the Bay Area.

Harriet Tubman wasn’t the only senior complex affected by the storm.

At Redwood Gardens, another affordable senior housing complex in Berkeley at UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus, a redwood tree came down through a third-floor apartment and displaced one elderly resident.

She was able to leave her home safely and relocate to another apartment in the same complex by Wednesday, according to other tenants.

An ongoing power outage has also been impacting residents at Helios Corner, a senior housing complex owned by Satellite Affordable Housing Associates at 1531 University Ave. Power went out at around 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and residents are having difficulty entering and exiting the building because the electronic door system isn’t working.

Maureen Burks’ mom and grandmother live at the 80-unit complex, and she was at the building to help them on Wednesday afternoon. She said other residents were considering renting hotel rooms to access power and hot water because power isn’t expected to be restored until Wednesday night.

The power at Helios Corner eventually came back at about 11 p.m. on Wednesday night, after residents were without power for about 30 hours.

This story was updated after publication.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...