Calif. Small Towns to Feel Heat Of a Long Hot Summer

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Hyperlink: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A85080-2001May27.html Small Towns to Feel Heat Of a Long, Hot Summer By Rene Sanchez, Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, May 28, 2001; Page A01

KINGSBURG, Calif. -- All along this small town's main street, as the first blasts of summer heat arrive, a community hostage to California's severe energy crisis is bracing for hard times.

At the old stone church, rising utility bills are forcing pastor Ed Ezaki to turn off air conditioners for Sunday school classes and use fans for as long as children can stand it. The church is opening its musty basement for elderly residents in poor health who may need cool shelter during blackouts.

At the town bakery, Frances Tirado is limiting operations because supplies that she has to keep frozen or refrigerated -- eggs, milk -- could be spoiled if all power is suddenly lost. To help pay steep new gas and electricity costs, she reluctantly raised the price of doughnuts.

At city hall, inside a dimly lit office, town manager Don Pauley is making plans to remove bulbs from street lights in the middle of some downtown blocks to help save electricity. He is worried that Kingsburg may have to close its only public swimming pool and softball field, too.

"If we were dealing with a tornado or a flood, at least we would know how to prepare and react," Pauley said. "But this one is a whole new kind of plague, and nobody really knows what to anticipate. There's a lot of anxiety. Because this could put us in a world of hurt real fast."

If California spends the summer besieged by blackouts, and it appears to have no escape from that predicament, few places in the state will be spared from inconvenience or hardship. But the recurring loss of something as fundamental as electrical power, coupled with dramatic new increases in utility rates and gas prices, poses an especially serious threat to hundreds of the state's small towns, where economies are fragile and municipal resources to cope with the problem are limited.

"For us, if even one of our businesses or institutions gets hit pretty bad by this, it can have a direct impact on everything else," said Ron Bates, mayor of tiny Los Alamitos, Calif. "We're the most at risk."

Far from the state's metropolitan centers, fear of blackouts and high energy prices has rural churches debating whether to cancel some Sunday services. Factories are asking workers to report to evening shifts after peak hours of power use. Towns are making sure railroad crossing alarms have backup power.

Fresno County has just imposed a hiring freeze to offset the cost of utility bills. Some legislators even have begun advocating that California take the extraordinary step of scheduling power outages around the state this summer in part to help communities better prepare for the consequences. A few days ago, Gov. Gray Davis (D) proposed requiring 48-hour public notice of blackouts. The outages that California has already ordered several times this year have come with barely an hour's warning.

Kingsburg (pop. 9,300) is dreading the summer. It is an old farming town 25 miles south of Fresno that lies next to a flat, dusty stretch of Highway 99 -- the raisin-producing capital of central California's vast San Joaquin Valley, the nation's largest agricultural region.

It is not a small town that usually has the blues. Its polished strip of locally owned shops and restaurants is vibrant, and it still regularly celebrates its unusual history as a turn-of-the-century colony for Swedish immigrants. Bright banners on main street proclaim, "Valkommen," or welcome.

But now, as the state power crisis worsens and the town approaches a season in which triple-digit temperatures are not uncommon, Kingsburg's cheery mood is changing.

Its new fears are manifest across California. For the first time in six years, a majority of California residents believes the nation's most populous state is heading in the wrong direction, according to a poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California. Nearly two-thirds of residents expressed the opposite view in a similar survey just five months ago, before energy problems engulfed the state.

California's economy, which is among the largest in the world, is also faltering. Hundreds of large businesses across the state are so alarmed by the disruption and financial damage that power shortages could cause this summer that they are pleading with state energy regulators to exempt them from blackouts.

But an entire town cannot ask for such a break. So Kingsburg is preparing for an ordeal.

"It gets hotter than blazes here in the summer," Ezaki said. "People really depend on air conditioning. We're doing everything we can to conserve power, but if there are blackouts, it could be terrible."

At the hardware store, residents are shopping for power generators but rarely buy any because of the cost. Instead, they are leaving with fans or batches of energy-efficient light bulbs. Some of them sound resigned to enduring blackouts, but others are angry that out-of-state power suppliers are making huge profits as California struggles to keep the lights on and they face expensive utility bills.

Polls show that Californians blame those companies most for the state's predicament.

"It's on everyone's mind," said Don Johnson, who manages the hardware store. "We don't know what's happening. But what can we do? I'm not going to fire people -- I just have to take the losses. Most of the town water pumps run on electricity. What happens if we have a fire in a blackout? Some of our farms are already hurting, and now we have huge rate increases for electricity. All of these things are snowballing."

Tirado, the bakery owner in town, is facing double trouble: the prospect of blackouts and soaring fuel costs. Her bakery has five trucks, and many deliveries in the mostly rural region are 20 miles away. "Add it all together, and it's pretty bad," she said.

At the town's biggest employer, a Del Monte foods plant, supervisor John Wells is gearing up to begin canning and packing freshly picked peaches. The plant has more than 1,000 employees in the summer. This year, he is giving all of them a new warning: If blackouts strike while the assembly line is at full tilt, do not move until someone with a light comes to get you. Wells fears workers could be injured in the dark.

He also is worried about potentially devastating losses. If the plant loses power for 15 minutes, peaches could spoil. If it has to shut down for an hour, most of its equipment will have to be sanitized.

"If blackouts come without warning, a lot of our product will have to go straight in the garbage," Wells said. "We have very little margin of error."

Energy bills are taking a toll, too. Wells is raising the temperature inside the sprawling plant to 80 degrees to cut power costs. "But I don't know how much that will help us," he said. "This problem is like trying to wrestle an octopus. I just don't know how to get my arms around the thing."

Kingsburg is most concerned about helping elderly residents through the power crisis. The town is a haven for retirees. Ezaki, of the Kingsburg Community Church, estimated that about 90 members of his congregation are over 80 years old. Many rely on electricity for air conditioning or medical equipment.

If the town's lights go out, police and fire officials are planning to go door-to-door and plead with elderly residents with health problems to accept rides to a senior center and other facilities that are least likely to lose power. The hospital is creating a telephone directory of elderly residents, so staff can call and check on them. Five churches intend to use their basements as makeshift shelters from blackouts.

Families are also preparing. "I've already told my father-in-law, who has some medical problems, that if we keep losing power, we're going to take our pillows and blankets to my office, and we'll just sleep there and make do," said Lisa Helm, who works on Kingsburg's main street. "But what I really worry about is other elderly people who will not want to leave their home no matter how hot it gets without power."

Every day, Pauley is urging residents to stay calm. But when nearly all the lights went out briefly in Kingsburg one recent morning, the phones at city hall rang with calls from frightened residents.

Pauley is working long hours on plans to steer the town through potential blackouts. But the city could suffer even if its lights stay on. California has been spending so much money -- nearly $5 billion -- buying power directly from suppliers in recent months that it is wiping out its budget surplus. The state soon may have to start cutting some financial aid it sends to cities and counties.

So Pauley is scrounging to save every dime he can. To reduce costs, he is working with the local utility company to figure out which street lights on the town grid are least necessary and would lower Kingsburg's monthly power bill if removed. "We have to go pole by pole," he said.

Pauley typed up a two-page energy alert warning of certain blackouts and had all the churches and schools in Kingsburg distribute them to residents. "Remember that we are all in this together and together we can make it through this crisis," the letter said.

His public face is stoic. "If we all start wringing our hands, we may create a panic," he said. "We just need to wait out this storm as best we can."

But inside a city hall in which the lights are off to conserve electricity, Pauley admits that he wishes he had more answers for the apprehensive town.

"None of us," he said, "knows where this is heading."

Copyright 2001, The Washington Post Company. Fair Use for Education and Research Only.

-- Robert A Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), May 29, 2001


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