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Back To Basics: Outages Cause Californians To Find Creative Ways To Pass The Time

April Ehrlich | JPR News
Farmworkers play volleyball at the Tehama County Fairgrounds during California's power outages.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company restored electricity all of its customers over the weekend. Last week, the major California utility decided to shut power to prevent its equipment from sparking another wildfire during strong, dry winds.

In Shasta and Tehama counties, many people were inconvenienced — some even endangered — when the power went out. But mostly, people were just bored and out of work, leading them to find creative ways to pass the time without electricity.

No Work? Let’s Play Ball

On a patch of lawn at the Tehama County fairgrounds, about a dozen farmworkers are in the middle of an intense game of volleyball.

About 200 seasonal workers from Mexico bunk down here for about two months while they work at a nearby strawberry farm.

Come si dice lo que estamos haciendo?” Javier Martinez turns to his coworkers to ask how to describe their work. “Trimming. Yes. We’re trimming plants.”

Martinez says they lost two whole days of work because they couldn’t pick strawberries without running water; the pumps need electricity to work.

His coworker, Jose Hernandez, guesses that the blackouts cost each worker about $300 over two days.

“$300 is a lot,” Hernandez says. “And we are losing that because we don't have electricity and we cannot work. This is a problem.”

So instead of working long hours trimming strawberry plants, Hernandez and his coworkers had to find something to do on these empty fairgrounds.

“We are playing football and basketball and cards,” Hernandez says. “Usually we use [our] phones to play or to see videos, and we cannot right now.”

The other problem? The men are living in a massive warehouse and sleeping on bunk beds. And right now it’s pitch black because of the outages.

But it’s at least perfect for pranks.

“Everybody is joking inside,” Martinez says. “Some others are scaring others.”

Martinez says he’s not afraid of the dark. He just wants to get back to work so he can charge his phone, talk to his brothers and parents, and make money to send back home to Michoacan.

Sharing A Story
In the warmth of her home in the distant rural area outside Anderson, Patty Warren is swaying slowly in a rocking chair as she reads aloud to her husband and brother, who are sitting nearby.

“I like to do that,” Patty Warren says. “And they evidently like to listen.”

Her husband, Richard Warren, smiles and nods in agreement.

The property has some electricity thanks to an old generator, which provides just enough power to keep their water pump working. Then they keep their living room warm with a wood stove.

Richard Warren says it took a few tries to get the generator working. They had to keep 5-gallon buckets of water around the property to flush toilets and keep water moving through their pipes.

Patty Warren’s brother, Jim McCanes, is covered in blankets in a nearby rocking chair. He just recently moved in with them.

“Today he was supposed to finally go to a primary care doctor here in Anderson,” Patty Warren says. “And it’s important for him to get to a primary care doctor.”

Patty says due to a doctor shortage in this rural area, McCanes had to wait more than a month for his first visit. But the office had to cancel all of its appointments. Now, she’s not sure when McCanes will get another chance to see a physician.

‘We’re writing this off as a camping trip’
Outside a hardware store in Anderson, people line up to refill propane tanks for their generators back home.

Except for George Sollender.

“No, I’m getting it for a barbeque so I could have something to feed my 92-year-old father with,” Sollender says.

Sollender has to cook outside because his electric stove and microwave aren’t working. He says the outages have also impacted his father’s health.

“It makes it really tough on him because he needs a CPAP at night,” Sollender says. “So it’s not very good.”
He’s not sure how long he could last without electricity.

“We’re hoping this will get over with,” Sollender says. “We’re just writing this off as a camping trip. As best as we could deal with it.”

Meanwhile, a utility helicopter flies through the skies above Anderson. Pacific Gas and Electric Company is inspecting its equipment from above, preparing for switching the lights back on over the weekend. Soon,

Sollender, the Warrens, the farmworkers and the rest of California will get back to life as usual, before strong winds convinced the company to cut power.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.