Half Moon Bay neighbors support the medically vulnerable during power shutoffs

Tom Devine attaches a backup battery to his CPAP device
Tom Devine, a Half Moon Bay resident impacted by recent power shutoffs, demonstrates how he can attach a backup battery to his CPAP machine on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.

Tom Devine has a degree in English — he never expected he’d have to become an expert in backup batteries.

But since the power started going out in Canada Cove, the mobile home neighborhood in Half Moon Bay where he lives with about 700 other residents over 55, Devine says he’s “gotten familiar with all sorts of things [he] didn’t have to know before” — like how many amps it takes to power a CPAP, a medical device that more than 20 of his neighbors rely on.

Devine himself uses the device, which treats his sleep apnea and allows him to breath normally during the night. When PG&E shut off the community’s power on Oct. 9 as part of its ongoing “public safety power shutoffs,” he suffered considerably, he said.

“I was battling a cold, and my nose was clogged up,” said Devine. “My CPAP machine was not available to work that night, so I didn’t sleep. And so I was a zombie the next day.”

Many of his neighbors have it worse. One who uses a CPAP has previously suffered strokes due to lack of oxygen. Others need insulin, which requires refrigeration. Still others are on oxygen supplies, which use a concentrator device that runs on electricity.

Devine is the leader of Canada Cove’s “Organized Plan for Emergencies” team, or COPE. In response to the shutoffs — the neighborhood had its power switched off twice in October, with additional outages threatened for the future — COPE has been working to organize support for the vulnerable members of their community.

“We basically have been spreading information to our neighbors, checking on neighbors who are vulnerable, and trying to help where we can,” Devine said. “There wasn’t a whole lot we
could do other than spread information during this time. But we’re networking, and more people are becoming aware of the need to prepare for emergencies like this.”

One of their biggest information needs is how to obtain backup power. For the residents with medical devices, COPE members have been researching the viability of lead-acid batteries, like those used to jump-start cars, and lithium batteries like those used for camping, to power their machines for brief periods. The batteries are better for the environment than gas generators, and cost between $50 to a few hundred dollars, instead of thousands.

Devine’s neighbor, a retired electrical engineer, is helping residents determine which batteries they need and how to connect them to their devices. Devine and several others now have rigs that allow them to run their machines for eight hours or more using batteries, he said.

Other community members are also helping respond to the shutoffs, including a former doctor, a former nurse and a former emergency response coordinator for San Mateo County.

“We’re lucky,” Devine said. “We have a lot of people in the group who have experience in this.”

Still, he says, the community is limited in what they can do.

“We need reliable power,” he said. “I’ve grown up in a world where we assumed we’d always have electricity—now I’m beginning to question that.”


  • Matthew Vollrath

    Matthew is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Journalism at Stanford University, which is less than a mile from his childhood home. He also sings a cappella, tutors writing, and attempts to write screenplays. He is one of the last remaining subscribers to MoviePass, and one of the last remaining humans who is not on Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat (though he finally caved and got a Facebook.)

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