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Rolling outages pose greater threat to disability community

Norman Transcript - 2/18/2021

Feb. 18—This week's power losses and frigid winter temperatures have been more than inconvenience to Oklahoma's disabled community, for which winter conditions and outages can be life threatening.

At one point this week, OG&E cut power to over 100,000 Oklahomans at the direction of the Southwest Power Pool, which required rolling blackouts after going to a Level 3 emergency. Norman and much of the state have been blanketed with several inches of snow as temperatures dip below zero.

Jeff Hughes, the executive director of Progressive Independence, said that when these natural disasters happen, society all but forgets about people with disabilities. Progressive Independence is a center for independent living in Norman that advocates for disabled Oklahomans.

"People are prevented from coming into somebody's home to provide personal care services or help somebody get up, get out of bed, get dressed, or cook a meal or some of those things," Hughes said. "It's like every winter when there's a power outage, people just suddenly become aware for folks who have disabilities that there might be a challenge."

Norman resident and healthcare advocate Kendall Brown said that when non-disabled people think about how blackouts affect the disabled community, their minds automatically go toward those with oxygen tanks.

"Obviously that is a huge one," Brown said. "But there are several ways in which blackouts impact disabled people in really severe ways that people don't even think about."

Brown said one example is people who use a power wheelchair.

"Those have to be charged very frequently, and if you lose the ability to charge your wheelchair for even just a single day, you're going to literally lose your ability to move around," Brown said.. "So, as a result, you're then stuck to your home."

In subzero temperatures like those Oklahoma has seen this past week, being disabled and being stuck in a home with no power or no way to move around might very well be a death sentence, Brown said.

"It's not even a hypothetical scenario — this is something that we know for a fact impacts and literally can kill disabled people," she said. "And that's just outside of the pandemic, that is just another layer added on top of this."

People with disabilities are statistically more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, and with the vast majority of Oklahoma's disability community having yet to receive the vaccine, going to a warming shelter or charging station is not an option, she said.

"Even if there are locations where there is power, where they could go and use a charging station to charge up their oxygen tanks, somebody who is on oxygen is extremely high risk for coronavirus," Brown said. "So they're literally having to choose between not having their oxygen tanks or risking exposure to coronavirus. So either way, either choice they make, they're literally facing the possibility of suffocating."

Brown said the issue that caused her the most frustration this week was the lack of communication from OG&E, SPP and the state about when rolling outages would take place. Having a method to alert consumers about even the possibility of a blackout in a timely manner could save lives, she said.

"That's not impossible for them to do," Brown said. "I know that it would take a lot of work on their end to prepare for something like this, but the problem is, if you conceptualize a system like that as being something that they have to develop on the fly once we're already in a situation where the blackouts are already happening, then yes, that feels very impossible. But the fact is that we have endless amounts of time before a situation like this arises, and they choose to not invest resources into developing a system, they are not hapless bystanders of this happening."

Brown was one of numerous Oklahoma residents who received a text alert from OG&E reminding them to pay their electricity bill either while their power was out, or right before it was cut off.

"They are choosing to prioritize profit over the lives of disabled people," Brown said. "A warning system would obviously allow someone who is disabled a chance to know how to space the timing of charging their devices."

In its 80-year history, this week is the first time the SPP has had to implement a Level 2 or 3 Energy Emergency Alert that forced them to ask their member utilities, like OG&E, to begin widespread controlled outage to conserve the power grid.

"This is the first time OG&E has had to implement these temporary power interruptions," OG&E spokesperson David Kimball said. "When we move from an EA 1 to an EA 2, that's kind of the early warning system that we need to be aware that power interruptions could be coming. We probably could have made that clearer to customers. It became a pretty fast moving train once that got onto the track."

Kimball said that OG&E is learning from this situation and will work to implement changes that will help OG&E alert its customers of oncoming rolling outages should this situation occur in the future.

Apart from physical and health side effects of people with disabilities losing power, the financial strain is a lot to bear as well, Brown said.

"I think it's also unacceptable to hold [OG&E and SPP] completely not liable for the financial implications that this is going to have," she said. "They clearly understand the financial implication of blackouts and they indicated that they understand those implications with how they handled [Oklahoma City] Thunder basketball game. Obviously the choice to still allow this basketball game to happen was a decision based on the financial implications of canceling that."

It's not just during severe winter storms and blackouts that people with disabilities are left out — it's every natural disaster, Hughes said.

"I don't think it's a matter of feeling forgotten, it's a matter of people actually being left out," Hughes said. "There's no support system in place for people with disabilities in Oklahoma. It is a misnomer in this day to be saying that Oklahoma cares — that's the furthest thing from the truth."

Reese Gorman covers COVID-19, local politics and elections for The Transcript; reach him at or @reeseg_3.


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