Long Beach's power woes continue after electrical fire

Smoke coming out of a manhole in Long Beach on Wednesday, July 15, 2015.
Smoke coming out of a manhole in Long Beach on Wednesday, July 15, 2015.

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Update 4:17 p.m. The number of customers without power in downtown Long Beach was down to about 2,700 homes and businesses Thursday afternoon. The number had been as high as 6,300 Wednesday after an underground cable overloaded.

Long Beach’s power grid, like those in big cities like Chicago and New York, is networked. That’s different from Edison power systems elsewhere in Southern California, which have more of a hub and radius setup.

Normally, a malfunction on a networked system that causes one part of the system to shut down doesn’t affect a wider area, because power can flow around the damaged parts, said Paul Grigaux, a Southern California Edison vice president. But such a network can be vulnerable to widespread shutdown when, as in this case, fire in one vault spread in the underground conduits to nearby vaults. The overloaded cable caused a cascading failure of 10 power cables and fire in three underground power vaults. 

To contain the spread of the fire and malfunctions, more of the system had to be shut down. The networked system also makes it harder to fix, because the malfunctioning parts must be isolated and tested before they are connected to the rest of the network, or else there can be a wider failure.

Grigaux said he expected the number of customers without power to fall to about 200 by late Thursday — however, in conducting the testing necessary to get the system fully restored, Edison might need to cut power to as many as 11,000 customers. Those customers are the homes and businesses in the downtown Long Beach area.

City officials had moved into an aggressive public safety mode as they coped with the outages. The police and fire departments were assigning extra patrols, Mayor Robert Garcia said. He urged neighbors to look after each other and to check in frequently on seniors and unsupervised teens and to call for help if it appears to be needed.

Downtown is a mix of high-end condos and low-income rentals, plus government buildings and retail. City Hall and the police station were closed during the power outage, but the Superior Court was operational Thursday. Emergency generators could be heard thrumming throughout downtown streets as some businesses kept operating, while others closed their doors for the day.

Food safety in thousands of powerless refrigerators also represents a public health threat. Nelson Kerr, head of the city’s environmental and public health department, urged people to leave their freezers closed and to test the temperature of the foods they are taking out of their refrigerators and freezers. Anything above 40 degrees — products like meat and milk — should not be eaten. 

“If in doubt, throw it out,” Kerr said. The city is sending around trash collection trucks to haul away spoiled foods on Friday, he said.

The dangers of being without power were made clear early Thursday when unattended candles caused a fire in an apartment house in the 400 block of Chestnut Avenue in the powerless area. Two residents who were trapped in their apartment behind security  bars were hospitalized, said Jake Heflin, Long Beach Fire Department spokesman.

Some of the disabled seniors who live at the Plymouth West high-rise apartments were carried downstairs after their elevator was stuck. Managers brought in pizza and donuts to keep them fed.

About 110 traffic signals remained out in the downtown area, although major intersections were being powered by portable generators, said Ara Maloyan, director of public works.

Sharon McNary/KPCC

7:23 a.m. Long Beach fire leaves thousands still without power

Following an electrical fire, 2597 Southern California Edison customers in Long Beach are still without power Thursday, according to SCE's website

Estimates vary on SCE's site as to when the power will be restored. 

The fire caused manhole covers to pop Wednesday and the debris caused the outages. Firefighters extinguished the fire and worked to ventilate the involved underground electrical vault, where the fire later re-ignited and required additional fire suppression, according to a City of Long Beach news release. 


SoCal Edison has posted a few consumer tips for dealing with power outages: 

Jessica Hamlin/KPCC

This story has been updated.