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US Power Outages Endanger People with Disabilities

Emergency Response Plans Should Be Inclusive, Accessible

A car drives through a darkened Montclair Village as Pacific Gas & Electric power shutdowns continue in Oakland, California, October 10, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Noah Berger

The risk of wildfire in the US state of California led utility provider Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to institute temporary power outages around the state earlier this month. But the decision jeopardized the health and safety of many people with disabilities, older people, and people with serious health conditions who rely on equipment powered by electricity, such as motorized wheelchairs, elevators, refrigerated medications, oxygen generators, and more.

This equipment enables many people with disabilities and older people to live in the community rather than nursing homes, and keeps people with serious health conditions well. The blackouts affected more than 700,000 PG&E customers in California and a number of homes were without electricity for 72 hours.

Unforeseen power outages force many people into uncomfortable and even perilous situations: older people in a senior community said losing power meant the elevator was out of use, leaving people living on higher floors feeling “trapped” and risking taking the stairs.

To aid those hit hardest by the outages, PG&E contacted so-called “medically fragile customers” and provided charging stations in some locations. The director of social services in Lake County, one of the areas subject to electrical outages, stated that because blackouts are not considered natural disasters, like wildfires, there are fewer resources to fund aid and shelters.

During power outages, additional costs can add up for people with disabilities, older people, and people with serious health conditions. Some opt for expensive backup generators for their electric supportive devices and refrigerated medications. Others must resort to costly hotel stays. And some can end up in the hospital.

It is important for companies to initiate steps for wildfire prevention while ensuring their actions do not have a disproportionate negative impact on people who depend on electricity for their life, health, and mobility. With more potential shutdowns on the way, utility companies and governments should consider more inclusive strategies such as providing advanced notice, improving accessible communication, minimizing power outages to no more than 12 hours at a time, and ensuring power outage planning includes people with disabilities to ensure future communication and relief efforts are fully accessible.

Human Rights Watch contacted PG&E for a response but has not received a response yet.

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