After hundreds of local residents were left without power for as long as 56 hours after the worst of our recent winter storms, the Hancock Park Homeowners Association and the Windsor Square Association organized an online town hall meeting last night with our local city council representatives, several representatives of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and members of the community – nearly 200 of whom showed up to voice their experiences, comments, and complaints.
In her introductory remarks to the session, HPHOA president Cindy Chvatal-Keane said the organizers “hope to start a dialogue today” about what happened, why area residents went so long without power, why they received inaccurate information about whose power was out and when it might be restored, and how the problems can be prevented from recurring.
City Council District 13 representative Hugo Soto-Martinez agreed with Chvatal that the situation was unacceptable, saying the second largest city in the country shouldn’t be experiencing such lengthy and repetitive outages, and that “we have a lot to learn from this.”
And CD 5 representative Katy Yaroslavsky said she, too, wants to hear more from both the community and LADWP, about both the most recent problems and similar power issues that have plagued the area for years. Residents deserve a working power grid, Yaroslavsky said, and for the last few years, they haven’t had one. Noting that she co-sponsored a City Council motion last week, seconded by Soto-Martinez, asking DWP to report back on outages, Yaroslavsky said the issue is important to understand since the recent storms may be just a preview of what’s to come as climate change progresses, and we need to improve our resilience.
The organizers of last night’s forum submitted 12 questions in advance to the LADWP representatives, asking for more information on the outage, which specific pieces of the local grid failed and why, and why communications from LADWP didn’t accurately reflect what was happening in the community (such as the number of outages, when power would be restored, and whether or not it had actually been restored). Other questions more specifically addressed why several recent updates to our local circuits didn’t prevent these outages, whether or not the city’s rapid addition of new housing units will further stress our power grid, and what LADWP can do now or as soon as possible to improve things before more storms hit.
Walter Rodriguez, Jr., Director of Power Transmission and Distribution for LADWP, fielded most of the questions in the first half of the discussion. He explained that our recent once-in-a-century storms, with rains that saturated soil across the metro area and led to a great many trees falling on power lines throughout the city (not just our area), left many of LADWP’s 1.5 million customers without power for various lengths of time. Rodriguez also reported that many of the more specific outages in the Windsor Square area were caused by the failure of an underground transformer, and he explained that when such outages occur, it takes a while to make sure the area is safe, determine what kind of equipment failed, dispatch the right kind of crew to investigate, locate the specific equipment underground, isolate the problem, drain the site, and perform the repair – a process that can take a couple of days or longer to complete, even when it’s not raining.
In response to Chvata-Keane’s follow-up questions about how both repair times and communications can be improved in the future, Rodriguez said LADWP would be meeting with the departments that maintain the city’s power outage maps to figure out how outage reporting (what’s out, where, and for how many people), maps, and other information systems can be improved, and to make sure messaging to both customers and other city officials is more accurate than it was during these most recent incidents.
“This is a fundamental information system we need to address,” said LADWP Chief Operating Officer Aram Benyamin, echoing Rodriguez’s remarks. He said residents need accurate information during power outages so they can plan their “next steps” if things don’t resolve quickly. And he agreed with Yaroslavsky, too, that more resilient responses will become even more important as we continue to see increasing storms and heatwaves as a result of ongoing climate change.
All that said, however, many attendees, including Councilmember Yaroslavsky, said the LADWP’s answers were still too vague…and too similar to messages the community has been hearing from LADWP through more than 10 years of frequent and prolonged power outages.
Pressed for more specific information on system upgrades, aging and over-stressed infrastructure, whether or not LADWP is adequately staffed to handle current and future power service, and why previous upgrades to neighborhood circuits didn’t prevent the continued power outages this winter, the LADWP representatives finally did provide some more detailed information.
First, Rodriguez said that LADWP did have every crew available standing by to respond when this storm hit, knowing that it could cause problems…and that DWP has also recently hired a great many contractors who were already work on the “miles and miles” of the city’s cables and power lines well before the storms. He said the city has been doing this work with future climate-driven needs in mind, and has also begun “wildfire hardening” of the system, as well as other kinds of disaster preparation.
Regarding previous improvements in the Greater Wilshire area, Brian Wilbur, LADWP’s Senior Assistant General Manager, Power System Construction, Maintenance & Operations, explained that during normal operations, the way DWP prioritizes projects is to deal with the worst ones first. For example, there may be as many as 17 power circuits in an area like ours (see map at right), and the previous repair/replacement work may have replaced the worst two or three of those. But if the remaining circuits, at the time of the repairs, were in comparatively better condition than those repaired, while circuits in other parts of the city are worse, Wilbur said the city would fix the worst lines in our area, and then move on to the most critical repairs elsewhere in the city before coming back to our neighborhood. So it’s quite likely that the previously-repaired circuits did do well in this storm, but some of the equipment that was not replaced in the last few years may have been what failed this time around.
Also, Wilbur explained that repair priorities change during a rain storm. LADWP’s first priority during a big rain, he said, is to respond to the greatest hazards first, which often include downed wires that jeopardize public safety, throughout the city. After those most immediate safety issues are addressed in all neighborhoods, he said, crews move on to the next priority level, which includes areas where there are the greatest number of power outages. And after power has been restored in those places, LADWP begins handling other issues in its report queue, starting with the oldest reports and working through the list to the most recent. And when there’s a big storm, and that list is long, Wilbur said, the list can take a long time to work through.
Next, answering questions of whether or not LADWP has funding to address its infrastructure issues, and whether the federal government’s recent infrastructure bill might help, Matthew Hale, LADWP Director of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, reported that LADWP has applied for (or is in the process of applying for) at least half a dozen multi-million-dollar federal grants for various kinds of resilience and power transmission upgrades. He said prospects look good for receiving the grants, and if the money is awarded, the utility will work with both the federal government and our local city council to allocate and prioritize the funding.
Rodriguez also said that the city’s rapid construction of new housing units is not the cause of current power grid stress, and is not likely to affect it in the future either, since new construction is spread through out the city, and not heavily concentrated in any single area. Yaroslavsky agreed with this, explaining that all new developments are analyzed by the city for their impact on local power resources, and if the current grid in the development’s area is deemed insufficient to serve the project, the developer is required to pay to upgrade the system (which is one reason new housing projects take so long to move through the city permitting process).
Finally, the LADWP representatives all agreed that that the utility, like all city departments at the moment, is both understaffed and trying hard to remedy that situation. At the moment, though, Rodriguez said it is at only about 70% of current staff needs, and Wilbur added that this is only about 50% of the level that will be needed over the next few years. To remedy this, said both the representatives and Soto-Martinez, the city is hiring additional contractors, publicizing the hiring effort at industry events, and reaching out to labor unions and apprentice programs to find potential employees. And Wilbur said LADWP is fully committed to this major hiring process, aiming to add more than 100 people per year in its engineering department alone.
In the end, however, many meeting attendees, still smarting from spending as long as 56 hours without power during some of the worst weather in recent memory, were not satisfied with most of last night’s answers — especially during the early part of the discussion. And many real-time responses posted in the webinar’s Q&A section expressed more anger than satisfaction with the “silly platitudes and empty promises” community members felt they were hearing.
Later, when attendees were allowed to ask live questions of the city representatives, the comments were still mostly negative, especially when several of the DWP representatives referenced “low” numbers of outages, or “individual” situations, which the residents insisted were wildly inaccurate terms that failed to acknowledge the actual number of outages, the number of people affected, and the level of dissatisfaction in the community.
During these comments, resident Kiki Gindler said that such mischaracterizations, when there were a great many more households without power for nearly three days than DWP acknowledges even now, more than a week later, “causes harm” to the community. She said “no information is better than misinformation,” and that DWP provided much of both during and after the crisis.
Windsor Square resident Gary Gilbert agreed with Gindler, saying he was told when calling LADWP after his power had been out for 44 hours that only a few customers were affected. But then he walked his neighborhood and learned the actual number was more than 300, which creates issues of trust and disappointment.
And neighbor Nancy Dolan joined the chorus, saying that in her area, 140 households were without power for more than two days, and there was no communication at all to those residents during that time by either LADWP or the local city council office, which left people feeling “abandoned and scared.”
Conclusions and Next Steps
Near the end of last night’s meeting, Councilmember Soto-Martinez said to the neighbors in attendance, “If I had to sum it up, I would say your city failed you.” And he said he takes responsibility for at least some of the communications problems, though he, too, received inaccurate updates from DWP saying the problems had been addressed…while outage reports continued to increase.
Soto-Martinez said he and other Councilmembers will continue to look into the failures, and “the more eyes and sharing on this the better.” He also said that he, too, senses a lack of remorse from city officials, and that he and Yaroslavsky will have lots to talk about as they continue to follow up and to direct the various city departments involved via additional Council motions. He also promised to communicate as transparently as possible to the community as this work continues.
This morning, several of the event’s organizers told the Buzz that they agree the issues underlying the outages – both physical and communicative – have not been fully addressed.
Chvatal-Keane said, “I think [the meeting] went well as far as community participation (close to 200 people on the call), and engagement from our new Councilmembers. However, I was disappointed with how unprepared DWP was and their failure to provide clear answers to our questions. We submitted 12 very direct questions well in advance of the meeting, and dealt specifically with the lack of communication – then misinformation – on how and why the outage occurred, and when power would be restored. I believe most everyone left the meeting disappointed with LADWP. As ratepayers we deserve better service – not excuses.”
Jen DeVore, HPHOA Secretary, said, “The HPHOA was grateful to DWP for their participation on last night’s call. But many neighbors expressed frustration that the DWP reps did not seem to know the specifics of the situation in Hancock Park and Windsor Square. They did not have the details on the exact number and locations of the outages, the number of homes affected, nor the time it took to repair the outages. As a neighborhood, we have been told for over thirty years that upgrades were funded, prioritized and ongoing…and yet outages persist with high frequency and increasing severity. I think that this prolonged outage was really the straw that broke the camel’s back for our neighborhood. We are hoping that the spotlight we are shining on these systemic failures is what it takes to finally get these problems addressed. ”
Meanwhile, Windsor Square Association President Larry Guzin told the Buzz that “Some Windsor Square residents suffered in darkness, without power for near three days because of some rain. The lesson we learned from last night’s meeting is that we will be on our own to deal with a catastrophic emergency and cannot expect timely government assistance. The Windsor Square Association is committed to preparing our residents for such an emergency, like a big earthquake.”
And Windsor Square resident Gilbert agreed. “The good news was that almost 200 neighbors showed up on the zoom,” he said, “which showed both the DWP as well as our new city council members that we are an engaged and united community. The bad news was that the DWP offered no comforting news, and as much as I want to say I was disappointed, it’s instead exactly what I expected. They listened, said “yes, we know, and we’re looking into it,” which is totally unacceptable. It’s the same answer they’ve given for decades.”
Gilbert also said, “They had no answers for why their outage maps failed other than they were overwhelmed, which in 2023 should not be the case. They had no answers for why our councilmembers were given false information on multiple occasions, and maybe worst of all, their answer to why it took so long to detect the problem in Windsor Square was ludicrous.
I’ve lived in the same DWP grid for over 35 years and we’ve lost power dozens of times, and I knew two days before the rain started not only that we were going to lose our power, but also that the cause of the power failure was going to be flooding in an underground vault. It’s been the same cause for decades, and for DWP to not know that seems beyond incompetent.
We sent them questions in advance, hoping for new information, and that didn’t happen, and I don’t think anyone on that zoom believes that DWP has the organization, manpower or funds needed to solve the problem anytime soon, and if so, I wish they would be honest and tell us, so we can look elsewhere for a solution.
The one piece of good news is that both Councilmembers Soto-Martinez and Yaroslavsky see the failures of the DWP and are committed to getting answers, and hopefully solutions.”
And even Soto-Martinez echoed the sense of letdown. “I appreciated DWP showing up and letting folks ask questions, but I was disappointed in their answers. They lacked empathy and accountability, without truly acknowledging the broadly felt frustration in the community. In addition to seconding the motion from Councilmembers Yaroslovsky and Raman on DWP’s storm response, I’ll be speaking with colleagues about other motions we can introduce that will help prevent this from happening again.”
But Windsor Square resident Jack Humphreville, who said he’s been hearing local city councilmembers make that same promise for many years, said the Councilmembers’ concern also didn’t go far enough — while he’d been hoping to hear information or solutions more specific to our larger Greater Wilshire or even Hollywood areas, he heard only “a lot of platitudes, but no specifics,” from any of the city officials. And that didn’t increase his trust level. “It feels like we’re going to be sitting in the dark (or the heat) a few more times,” he said.
In the end, resident Beth Corets seemed to speak for many people when she suggested near the end of last night’s meeting that LADWP should survey all of its customers to learn about their experiences during the recent storms, to collect more accurate data, and to gather comments and ideas for improvements…because there are clearly issues and information that have not yet been heard or acknowledged.
If you did not attend last night’s Zoom meeting, but would like to watch, a recording is available here.
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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One thought on “Town Hall on Recent Power Outages Focuses on Community Anger, LADWP Responses”
Great summary of the meeting Elizabeth! Your report is a community service for those that were unable to attend in person. DWP’s answers are very concerning!.