California seniors 'abandoned' during forced blackouts, wildfires

NOVATO, Calif. (AP) — One woman in her 80s tripped over another resident who had fallen on the landing in a steep stairwell. Others got disoriented, even in their own apartments, and cried out for help.

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At least 20 seniors with wheelchairs and walkers were essentially trapped, in the dark, in a low-income apartment complex in Northern California during a two-day power shut-off aimed at warding off wildfires.

Residents of the Villas at Hamilton in Novato, north of San Francisco, say they were without guidance from their property management company or the utility behind the blackout as they faced pitch-black stairwells and hallways and elevators that shut down.

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"We were surprised by how dark it was," said Pamela Zuzak, 70, who uses a walker to get around. "There was nothing, nothing lit. It was like going into a darkroom closet, pitch black, you couldn't see in front of you."

From left, Sharon Wagner-Higgins, Brian Cherry and Theresa Metzger talk about their experiences of being stranded in the dark during the power blackouts at the Villas at Hamilton housing complex for low income seniors Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, in Nov

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut off power to more than 2 million people over the weekend to prevent its equipment from sparking fires amid hot, dry gusts. It was just one of four pre-emptive rounds of shut-offs imposed by the utility this month.

By PG&E's estimate, more than 900,000 people were without power Wednesday, some of them since Saturday, while crews battled fires in Northern and Southern California.

The outages turned urban highways dark and blackened shopping malls once glittering with light. People stocked up on batteries, water and gas and lamented the spoiled food in refrigerators.

But the blackouts are more challenging for older and disabled residents who lack the transportation and money to rush out for ice and groceries, said John Geoghegan, head of the Hamilton Tenant Association.

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He said about a third of the Villas' 140 residents are too old, sick or cognitively impaired to care for themselves during an extended outage. He alleges the property management company VPM "abandoned" its tenants.

Pamela Zuzak, 70, reflects on her experiences of being stranded in the dark during the power blackouts at the Villas at Hamilton housing complex for low income seniors Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, in Novato, Calif. Pacific Gas & Electric officials s

Geoghegan came home Saturday night to find residents milling in the parking lots, some near panic. "Some expected they would be communicated with, but they weren't hearing from anybody," he said.

VPM Management of Irvine, landlord Affordable Housing Access of Newport Beach, and the on-site manager did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Elected officials and PG&E customers have complained bitterly over the utility's lack of communication and inability to provide real-time estimates of when power would be back on.

Marie Hoch, president of the Hamilton Field of Marin Owners Association, which does not include the Villas, got a call Monday. She visited the three buildings that make up the complex and found apartments without heat and electric stoves that did not work.

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"I thought it was particularly upsetting that they knew the power outage was coming," she said of management.

Zuzak didn't leave her floor until after Monday night, when power was restored. She spent the two days ping ponging from one end to the other, checking on neighbors.

Helen Wagar, who is in her 80s, displays her swollen knee from a fall in a dark stairway during the power blackouts as her dog Pixie looks on at the Villas at Hamilton housing complex for low income seniors Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, in Novato, Calif.

Her friend Patti Zahnow, 77, who also uses a walker, says she was too frightened to leave her apartment.

"It was really dark. They put a flood light up that wasn't working," she said. "They should have a flood light that works."

Residents said emergency lighting came on in the windowless hallways but lasted for about 12 hours, not nearly long enough for an extended outage. Battery-operated front doors to the buildings that are usually locked became unlocked during the outage.

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"It's pretty disconcerting for the seniors who were fairly unprepared or have difficulty orienting at nighttime," said Maureen Wagner, 64, who serves as a caregiver for her sister, who lives at the Villas.

Patty Zahnow, 77, makes her way down a ramp at the Villas at Hamilton housing complex for low income seniors Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, in Novato, Calif. Zahnow was one of many seniors at the complex that was stuck in the dark during the recent power

Resident Helen Wagar, who is in her 80s, was returning to her third-floor apartment from walking her dog, Pixie. She was climbing the stairs, in the dark, when she tripped over another woman who had fallen on a landing.

Wagar's knee is swollen. She never found out the identity of the woman.

"It was black as pitch in that stairwell," she said. "I never did see the girl at all."