In an Emergency, Disabled People Are on Their Own


Last month I was without electricity for several days. If you pay attention to the news, or you’re like me and listlessly scroll through Twitter, then you probably heard about the power outages here in California.

In October, Pacific Gas & Electric (PGE), one of the nation’s largest utilities, voluntarily cut power to more than a million people in 36 counties in Northern California, at least three separate times. The purpose was to reduce the risk of wildfires, of which the company has admitted their power lines have caused in the past.

The voluntary power outages have done little, if anything, to reduce wildfires in the state. Despite the outages, fires continued to rage from Sonoma to Los Angeles throughout last month. And while the environmental implications and shortcomings of PGE have made national headlines, one crucial aspect has not: the impact these fires have on sick and disabled people.

Thankfully my family and neighbors are incredibly thoughtful and have looked out for me in these situations. We have a plan in place and a wildfire evacuation checklist.

In the past, when our area has been without power, we’ve also lost our running water because it has to be pumped uphill to our house. But now that wildfires and power outages have intensified and become more common in California, especially in the fall months, we’ve had to adapt. Our neighbors have let us use a backup generator to keep food from spoiling. They have also lobbied the local water district to use generators to keep our water running during outages. This is an example of a community and government responding to people’s needs. But others haven’t been as lucky.

In one example, while responding to a tweet, the City of Berkeley told a concerned citizen that people who are dependent on electrical medical devices should “use their own resources” or go to an emergency room, instead of offering help directly.

How are disabled people supposed to go to the ER when hospitals and other medical facilities have had to evacuate during the wildfires? These patients and many other bedridden and home-bound people have been left without power to run lifesaving or otherwise essential medical devices.

In another example, a man in Sonoma County died when the power was shut off and he could no longer run his oxygen machine. This is the kind of thing that should be alarming to everyone, and to those of us who are disabled and equally as vulnerable, well, it’s just fucking scary.

Each fall, for the last few years, I’ve lived on edge, hoping a major wildfire doesn’t strike where I live and force me to choose between the lesser of two evils–stay and risk dying in my home or evacuate and risk making myself sicker and getting injured. Just like the sick and disabled people in Berkeley, I would be screwed, left to rely on my own “resources.” I would have to create my own wildfire evacuation checklist and figure out how to get myself into a vehicle and out of danger when I haven’t even been able to get into a wheelchair for the last year.

Some people might say, well, that’s just how it goes–sick and disabled people get left behind if they can’t fend for themselves. But, really, that’s bullshit. I mean, come on, people run into burning buildings to save their pets, a large municipality like Berkeley can’t set up a shelter and some generators specifically for people who need medical care? It’s negligent, and lazy.

Here we are, in mid-November and the threat of wildfires is still hovering over California. The ground and the air are dry, the winds are high, and it still hasn’t rained. For now, all we can do is hope we find a solution to the wildfires that keep getting worse every year, the voluntary power outages that do nothing, and the unpreparedness of those in charge.


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8 thoughts on “In an Emergency, Disabled People Are on Their Own”

  1. Yes, what’s going on here in California is damn scary. I live in the foothills of Altadena, which is part of Los Angeles. Our house is on a hillside in a very high-risk area. It came very close to burning down once already. Actually, the plight of disabled people in the fires has been getting a fair amount of press here. I’ve had ME/CFS for over 20 years and am mostly housebound. But, luckily, I have a husband who can look out for me. I’m not sure what the answer is to this whole situation. I think climate change is the issue of our times, so I try to stay “plugged in” politically and vote for people who actually believe in it. Then, regarding my disability, rather than sucking it up and pretending I’m ok when I’m with others, I’m very open about my illness. I come out of the shadows whenever I can. But, no doubt. This issue of the disabled and wildfires is pretty awful.

  2. sharonrousseau1246

    Thank-you. Sending prayers you remain safe. Many valid points and observations! Waiting for your Twitter post and will retweet (@SharonR_mecfs). You hit the nail on the head – thankful for friends and neighbours who helped you.

    Seems to me our new “Society” is moving towards every person for themselves. We are not coming together to volunteer to build communities and look after those less fortunate anymore. I am tired of some with the conservative attitude that the current trickle down economy will take care of everything if everyone just works hard and pays their taxes. Charities can’t pick up all the slack!

    Why do you think we are losing community cohesiveness? Is it because so many isolate to the virtual world, consumerism, poverty gap, hollowing out of traditional gathering sites, growing apathy towards effects from climate change?

    A little bit of doom and gloom (I’ve since quit my political activism – can’t deal with the amount of corruption and the stress kept flaring my ME). Don’t read if you are having a bad day.

    I live in BC and they are wiping out our fire protecting old growth forests and aspens at breakneck speed, illegally. Satellite pics tell the whole story. We experienced the 11 fold increase in wildfires & smoke in 2017 & 2018, couldn’t breath the air outside. Nothing we can do – superpowers U.S. and China want the water, raw logs, monocultures and liquified natural gas, oil, coal and minerals. Many communities losing quality and quantity of their watersheds/aquifers. Species like wild salmon, herring, steelhead, sea-lions, SW orcas, grizzlies, cougars, caribou, etc are being driven to extirpation/extinction. Californians should be worried for the Columbia River – they renewed the Treaty with BC this year, but not privy to its contents. China and BC gov’t own Site C Mega dam under construction and domed to fail – it is wiping out top quality agriculture lands in the Peace River Valley that could have fed 1 million people. BC is food insecure at 47% and it continues selling off its agriculture reserves without penalty. It all adds to the increased droughts and fires. Wild wild west.

    Best regards,
    Sharon Rousseau


  3. Our facility had a fire in skilled nursing a couple of weeks ago – they managed it, and patted themselves on the back, but I doubt they can handle a full-scale emergency.

    There are three hundred fifty people here, and a good half of them cannot evacuate themselves safely. And we’re wasting four years again – while the climate change is accelerating faster than the scientists ever thought it could.

    I don’t know what the answer is.

  4. I get what PG&E is doing, I really do. They don’t want another Paradise on their hands, but the way they are going about it seems entirely unethical. Aside from natural occurrences there’s a reasonable expectation that you will receive the services you’ve paid for. If there is an interruption in that service it seems like they should offer alternatives BEFORE they go and cut power all over the place. I’m rather insulated from it as I’m coastal in San Diego, but even here they are cutting power. My bf has a cpap, which is medically necessary, and we keep crossing our fingers that the power doesn’t go out here at night. Unfortunately the people who need to cause a ruckus, the “haves”, won’t because they have back up plans and generators and vacation homes to go to. So it’ll go on endlessly and that’s awful if you ask me. PG&E needs to take responsibility, at the very least, better than they are. Hoping they figure it out soon for you and for so many others.

  5. Here in Placerville, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, we’ve been nailed by PG&E blackouts and cancelled homeowner’s insurance policies. Corporate politics means doing without because ‘something might happen’–never mind that actual fires have kept their distance from here. Thanks to PG&E we have less control over our lives, and have to pay for their unreliable and intermittent service as well.

    The insurance companies smell blood, and began cancelling policies up and down the Gold Country area. To avoid losing your house, you must pay for a bare-bones policy that only covers fire–at a rate often in excess of your previous, more comprehensive policy.

    Luckily, I’m able-bodied. I can only imagine the level of anxiety for those with disabilities facing these heightened risks, most of which are created by the greedy powers-that-be. Although Governor Newsome says the right things, government has generally been unwilling to help change this neglect of the public interest.

    Overdevelopment has made many communities more vulnerable to natural and man-made hazards. Certainly, there’s to magic fix to our dilemma in California. Clearly, though, it’s the current residents–particularly the least-able groups: the poor, children, the elderly, and those with disabilities that suffer inordinately, while everyone here has their livelihoods in the balance.

    1. That’s really frustrating. I’m just down from you, near Sonora. Thankfully I don’t have to deal with the insurance policy but I’m definitely worried about the Fire season this year. I just got a wheelchair ramp for my driveway so that should ease some of the anxiety, though the threat of fire seems like it’s always going to be there. Hopefully California gets more rain this year.

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