In the dark

Mobile home residents question life-threatening power outages

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

On a scorching Sunday afternoon, an 86-year-old woman suffering with asthma could barely utter the words for help inside her modest mobile home. She had just endured a weekend of drawn-out power outages that left her oxygen tank powerless for at least two nights.

Her lungs were practically closed. Hazel Holland could not get a breath.

Bill Holland, her husband who is legally blind, failed to find the phone but made his way outside to have his neighbor call 911. That night, Bill almost lost his wife of 68 years.

For more than 30 hours beginning last Friday evening, as temperatures soared as high as 108 to 113 degrees, the resident-owned and -operated senior citizen complex Casa Nova Mobil Home Park remained without power for various periods of time.

And yet, no residents were informed of any problems.

"I had no idea what was going on. I thought we'd hear something from the board of directors on how to protect ourselves but I heard absolutely nothing. No one said anything; everything was hush," said Candice O'Gara, a caregiver for 79-year-old Barbara Tellefsen.

O'Gara has lived in the park for 10 years, caring day and night for Tellefsen, a woman with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair. For O'Gara, there was no greater fear than seeing her frail companion suffer from heat stroke.

"I spent 36 hours trying to keep her cool by bathing her in water, pushing liquids, applying cold towels and wiping her down," she said.

Holland and O'Gara are two of the 131 mobile home residents who tolerated a weekend with limited electricity in Casa Nova Mobile Home, a park of seniors 55 and older.

Their homes, once a refuge on well-manicured lawns, became sizzling toasters with indoor temperatures rising up to 100 degrees. Developmentally disabled seniors live in some, while other residents use wheelchairs.

For some residents, the lack of power meant the inconvenience of staying with a relative, friend or in a motel. The majority, however, live on fixed incomes and have no family or are unable to drive. Enduring the heat was their only option.

"This is a sad state of affairs," O'Gara said. "These are elderly people and the board of directors allowed this to happen. There is no protection for these folks. I'm furious."

Behind the brick wall

In this park, outlined by a one-year-old brick sounding wall that envelops a winding road with narrow streets and pretty flowers, people slept in air conditioned cars to keep from the heat.

"It was the only place to stay cool," explained Marla Mendoza, an ex-maintenance worker for the park.

Mendoza is one of the few residents in the park willing to speak out against the board of directors, headed by Chris Baker, president.

"People in this park are afraid of retaliation. I'm speaking out for them," she said.

As Mendoza explained, a procedure should have been followed when the first power outage took place.

"They are fully aware of what to do. We have a list on the wall of who to call and they didn't do it because they were not properly trained. All of this could have been avoided," she said of the two maintenance workers headed by Baker's uncle, Don Baker.

In most mobile home parks, PG&E uses primary metering, meaning they bring power to the park which then gets distributed to each of the mobile homes.

According to Baker, he followed protocol by calling PG&E and waited for their arrival hours later early Saturday morning.

"The only thing we can do is wait for them to check our systems. Once they say their system is OK, we have to look further," he said Wednesday. Chris Baker wouldn't comment further on the power outage situation.

PG&E spokesman David Eisenhauer confirmed there was a problem with the park's equipment. Officials told park directors about the situation after their first visit Saturday morning.

"Every time we try to turn it on it goes back off and we told them. That's our policy," he said. "They should have professional electricians that maintain and take care of that equipment in the park."

The power went out first from 5:45 p.m. Friday to 6:30 a.m. Saturday. It was off again from 3:20 p.m. Saturday through 7 a.m. Sunday.

By Sunday morning, residents who checked their mailboxes found a notice from the board warning of future outages. It stated:

"We have four sub transformers within the park and beginning at noon today we will start cycling off one section at a time for one hour intervals until 9 p.m. This will be done anytime the temperature is forecast to go about 102 degrees or that the main circuit breaker panel shows signs of overheating.

"We are also checking the cost of upgrading the panel to prevent us from having to do this. Please help us by conserving as much electricity as possible during this time."

Baker phoned five electricians but no one was available for service, he said. He refused to give out their names.

"We found the problem and know what it is now. We have an electrician coming out to fix it," he added Wednesday.

No back-up plan?

Should the board of directors be responsible for their mobile home residents?

"We do what we can possibly do. If someone in the park needs electricity, they need to go to a relative or motel. We're not in the health-care situation where we go to their homes and take care of their situations," Baker said.

O'Gara disagreed. She spent most of Monday calling state agencies in hopes of finding an answer.

"There was no plan in order. By law, they are supposed to have emergency tactics whenever the public is at risk. Apparently there weren't any," she said.

Under the Mobilehome Parks Act, the responsibility of a mobile park to provide electricity continuously is both a health and safety obligation and it is an obligation in a lease between a park owner and the park resident, said to Ron Javor, assistant deputy director of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"Even if it's a PG&E problem, we will tell the park owners they must provide temporary electricity while they figure out whose problem the outage is and get it fixed," Javor said. "The owner must make sure electricity is provided even by a generator while the problem is fixed."

According to Javor, Casa Nova Mobile Home Park violated state requirements by having the power go on and off Sunday afternoon to conserve energy.

"That violates the state's health and safety requirement because turning it on and off does not provide continuous electrical service as required by law," he said. "If the current service is not adequate to meet the needs of all the homes, the board has an obligation to upgrade service until it's adequate."

By Wednesday evening, a state electrician diagnosed an imbalance on the park's system. Should there be more power outages, the state requires Casa Nova to have a generator in the park as back-up.

Days later

The 87-year-old man didn't even get an apology.

"My wife had to suffer. What they did was so bad and it's gonna cost me," said Bill Holland, once a member of the board for eight years. "They should have come to my door. They know I am blind. They know I can't read. I never even saw the notice they sent out. They did that whole thing wrong."

Holland, with his wife still hospitalized and in "bad shape," is waiting for an explanation and apology from the board members. He knows it's unlikely to happen.

"They're not taking care of us. They're violating every rule and they didn't have a right to do that," he said. "There are people on life support and they're taking a big chance on us. They know what happened to my wife and they'd didn't even call. They didn't do right by my wife."