Lights Out on Treasure Island

Treasure Island residents have suffered through years of rolling blackouts — then the pandemic hit.

When the pandemic began, Treasure Island resident Hope Williams tried working from home in adherence to shelter-in-place orders. But as lengthy power outages in her neighborhood continued, she found that driving over the Bay Bridge to the city and finding a parking space close to a reliable WiFi signal was a better option. On these days, she works out of her car until it’s time to go back home.

“As a Treasure Island resident, my life, and the lives of my children, are not valued,” says Williams, a mother of two.

For two decades, the San Francisco neighborhood — not quite a square mile large and often forgotten by mainlanders living in the 7×7 — has been suffering from consistent power outages that last four hours on average. In 2019, there were at least 12. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been at least three, with one occurring on Mother’s Day.

“I’ve had my kids stay with relatives while I’m on the island, so they won’t have to deal with that trauma,” Williams says. When the power goes out, sewage backs up. Sometimes it runs out into the street or pools inside homes. Food spoils, WiFi and cell services fail, and those who rely on medical devices to survive know they need to have a back-up plan. 

Residents on Treasure Island endure four hour long blackouts on a consistent basis. Photo by Kevin Hume/SF Examiner

“Imagine being in a shelter-in-place, and your lights could go out at any second,” Williams says. “And you stood in line for hours to get food and supplies and all of that, and you could just be sitting in the dark, not knowing when your lights could come back on.”

It’s a nerve-wracking scenario, one that can be particularly stressful for parents and children. Treasure Island has a preschool and a small charter school — but no San Francisco Unified School District site. Many students would take buses into the city before the pandemic. But a district-wide school closure means that access to schools — and school lunches — have been cut off for hundreds of Treasure Island kids.

To mitigate the impact, Williams spearheaded a bagged meal program with SFUSD for students who need food during the pandemic. It’s a much-needed resource, considering Treasure Island’s pre-existing food pantry has seen a 50 percent increase in demand since the pandemic started, and residents are suffering from furloughs and layoffs as unemployment rates near national highs not seen since the Great Depression. Williams herself worries that she’ll be joining this group soon.

“My story is not unique to the stories I’m hearing,” Williams says.

Unwelcome Disruption

For those who still have a job, power outages can jeopardize their work. Samantha Doyle works in customer service. Her office is currently closed to minimize the spread of COVID-19, so having a solid internet connection and uninterrupted power is crucial for her.

“I don’t get paid for any time I don’t work,” Doyle says. “I just don’t have the PTO for that.” Doyle’s roommates’ work situations are also unstable. One is out of a job, and the other is going to work “off and on.” It’s important that at least one person in her household has a stable income.

Doyle even has to worry about electrical outages when she sleeps. As someone who suffers from sleep apnea, a disruption in power means a disruption to her CPAP machine.

“I stop breathing 60 times per hour when I sleep,” Doyle says. “I need a constant positive air stream into my mouth and nose and lung area so I don’t stop breathing.”

Though it’s not a matter of life and death, Doyle says, sleeping without the CPAP negatively impacts her health.

A view of Treasure Island from Yerba Buena Island on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Nancy McCormick-Kovacich, a deaf Treasure Island resident who interviewed with SF Weekly through a sign-language interpreting service, moved to the neighborhood partly because of her heart condition, and partly because she and her family were desperate for a home.

20 years ago, she and her family were living in a homeless shelter. They needed a place relatively close to a good hospital. (McCormick-Kovacich says that with her heart condition, she “should be dead, honestly, right now.”) They also needed a home that wasn’t at a high-altitude.

“I live at sea level because of my heart,” McCormick-Kovacich says. But over the years she’s experienced a number of issues related to the power outages. She has to replace her refrigerator every three years, a costly endeavor that she believes is exacerbated by the neighborhood’s constant blackouts. When the power goes out, so does the heat, and San Francisco winters along the water can get rather cold — at least by California standards. 

It’s not a perfect situation, and at times, the culmination of challenges can be nerve-wracking. But Treasure Island is her home, and like many residents, she doesn’t want to leave it.

A Typical Situation

There are a few basic rules that those living on Treasure Island know to follow: Keep your phone fully charged at all times, unplug all electronics when leaving the house (when the lights finally come back on, it is not uncommon for power surges to fry expensive electronics), and always have candles and matches on hand — you never know when you might need them. 

Living on the island has shaped residents’ approach to things others would take for granted. Once, McCormick-Kovacich was talking with a friend and the conversation pivoted to produce, a simple topic that would reveal a large disparity.

“Apples last two weeks?” McCormick-Kovacich said to them. “I forgot what it’s like to have your produce last that long.”

Even when she sees her toilet water rising — just a little bit — she’s struck with fear and flashbacks. It hasn’t happened in a while, but the worst blackout-induced sewage back-up led to feces spilling into her apartment, a traumatizing experience. 

“We’ve had poop coming into the kitchen before,” McCormick says. “More than half the apartment was filled with poop.”

Power outages are just one problem the neighborhood’s 3,000 residents face. In the era of the novel coronavirus, new and daunting challenges have arisen: There is only one grocery store on the island, which can make pandemic shopping even more fraught (though residents say it’s decently stocked); a single 24-hour bus line connects Treasure Island to the mainland, but car-less residents are cautious about riding public transportation during a pandemic; there is no hospital on the island, and its community clinic is currently on hiatus. Earlier this year, UberEats temporarily stopped delivering to the island, blaming Mayor London Breed’s delivery fees cap. And, when the San Francisco Unified School District first mapped out their lunch distribution sites for the pandemic, they left Treasure Island out, until Williams stepped in.

Barklee Sanders shows a non-delivery message on food delivery app Caviar in his Treasure Island apartment on Friday, April 3, 2020. Photo by Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

Even if all of these issues were to be solved overnight, the very ground that Treasure Island residents walk upon is unstable.

Built out of sand and silt in the 1930s for the Golden Gate International Exposition, the neighborhood rests on artificial landfill, making it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Some also worry that the island is toxic to live on, as radioactive material has been found on the island. While other former military bases — such as the former Navy base at Hunters Point — have been deemed Superfund Sites, Treasure Island does not share that designation. All the same, just this year, 47 residents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging exposure to radioactive elements, though the Navy found “no radiological health risk” on the island. 

“We literally live on a radioactive cleanup site,” resident Barklee Sanders says. “What is a little coronavirus?”

Sanders has been actively trying to find a solution to the constant power outages, a problem that the island inherited when it was repurposed into low-income housing in 1997. 

Nowadays, the neighborhood is kind of like San Francisco’s “playground” for non-residents, according to Sanders. The island might attract ambitious photographers capturing escapist city views, or adventurous bikers from the Financial District, or even live music lovers who attended the Treasure Island Music Festival before its recent end. Even during the shelter-in-place, visitors trickle into the island for its beaches.

“It’s always kind of cringey to me,” Sanders says. “If you only knew what was going on in this community.”

A lot of people don’t know that Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island are home to about 3,000 residents, according to Census data. Of these residents, 20 percent are black, and 29 percent are Hispanic or Latinx. Many residents are formerly homeless, and many live below the poverty level. That means vulnerable communities have been left in the dark for years, or even decades.

“It’s racism,” Sanders says — “a typical situation.”

Not Just 7×7

“The city lights don’t shine on us,” Doyle says, and she means it literally. The glittering San Francisco skyline can be seen from the shore of Treasure Island — that’s why so many photographers flock to the neighborhood, to capture that perfect shot. But when the power goes out, the stunning view feels a bit like a slap in the face to residents. 

From Sanders’ perspective, seeing the city across the water only serves to remind him of everything his community is expected to go without. “That means low income black and brown people are not privileged enough,” he says.

Photographers flock to Treasure Island for its Bay Bridge and city skyline views. Photo by Kevin Hume/SF Examiner

According to San Francisco District Six supervisor, Matt Haney, some locals seem to be unaware that people even live on Treasure Island. Haney says he is frequently asked if the city can house people experiencing homelessness on that island — operating under the assumption that it’s empty.

“One, people live there now,” Haney says. “Two, there’s a plan for the island that involves significant redevelopment and a lot of new houses. And three, actually, many of the people who live on Treasure Island right now are formerly homeless.”

Forgetting Treasure Island isn’t just a symptom found in everyday bystanders. It’s something Haney sees sometimes in city departments too. 

“Sometimes, when city departments are making decisions for San Francisco, they don’t consider the fact that there’s an island full of people — many families and seniors,” Haney says. “They’re uniquely isolated and vulnerable.”

“We’re not only 7×7,” Haney says. He finds himself having to advocate for Treasure Island “a lot” because of this neglect. SFUSD’s initial lunch distribution map is one example.

“People would have had to drive all the way into the city just to pick up food on a daily basis,” Haney says. Those without cars would have had to rely on bus lines, which have decreased citywide since the pandemic wiped out much of Muni’s fare revenue.

Williams reached out about the issue, and together with Haney’s team, SFUSD Board of Education Commissioner Gabriela Lopez, and service organization One Treasure Island, Williams was able to find a site and start distributing meals to 291 Treasure Island students who need them. She even makes deliveries for those worried about leaving their home.

“As resources allowed, SFUSD continually added sites in different neighborhoods in the days that followed, including on Treasure Island,” Laura Dudnick, public relations officer to SFUSD, wrote in an email to SF Weekly, saying that SFUSD has distributed over 1.2 million meals to the city’s families since March.

In general, both Sanders and Haney believe that Treasure Island has been mistreated partly because it’s a marginalized community of black, Latinx, and middle and low income residents.

“If Treasure Island was currently a wealthy community, their treatment would be different than it has been,” Haney says. “That’s a sad reality of our society, and an indictment of our city, in terms of whether we truly live the equity we proclaim.”

Treasure Island’s $6 billion redevelopment project includes 8,000 residential units — including luxury homes on Yerba Buena Island, the isthmus that connects Treasure Island to the Bay Bridge. Current residents wonder if these newcomers will ever be subject to the same conditions they have been for years.

“There will literally be people in condos that will look down on us,” Sanders says. “When they have power, it’ll be even more of a smack in the face.” 

Power To The People

Sanders’ home is filled with posters that say “Power to the People.” Other printed flyers depict a raised fist clutching a power cord. They’re constant reminders of the responsibility he’s taken up to restore consistent power to Treasure Island.

“I’ve been going about it the nice way,” Sanders says. “I go find the contractors that will help them solve this problem. I go find the grant money or the programs that are available to fund batteries and solar [power] on these apartments.”

Earlier this year, Sanders went to a Tesla meet-up in Dublin, Calif., to see if he could find anyone who might help. Sometimes, he tweets at Elon Musk, the eccentric and controversial Tesla CEO who sometimes swoops into vulnerable communities for random humanitarian efforts, asking for assistance. R&B singer Akon commented on the situation himself through Cameo, a service where people can book celebrities to create short videos.

Sanders has also created a Twitter, Facebook and website dedicated to the blackouts on Treasure Island. He’s reached out to private companies about solar power systems and communicated directly with the Treasure Island Development Authority and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to present these solutions. He’s tried to install a battery in his own home, but found out it would cost thousands of dollars in equipment, installation and licensing fees. 

TIDA does have its own plan for fixing the blackouts. The organization’s director, Robert Beck, says that ongoing redevelopment plans have made it possible for the island to upgrade its power grids “for the first time,” along with other pre-existing facilities and equipment. The electrical infrastructure is about 87 years old, decades past its useful lifespan.

Treasure Island is currently undergoing a $6 billion redevelopment project. Photo by Jessica Christian/SF Examiner

“It has a number of inherent vulnerabilities to outages,” Beck says. The SFPUC, which acts as an energy contractor to TIDA but does not own the electrical systems, has been installing fault indicators, doing spot repairs and identifying vulnerable points before they manifest. SFPUC also has emergency generators, but they’ve failed before.

Replacing its electrical switchgear, the source of a lot of pre-existing vulnerabilities, is the SFPUC and TIDA’s long-term investment. Upgrading that will hopefully ensure consistent electricity for years to come.

“That work should be completed around January of 2021,” Beck says.

But the pandemic is happening right now.

“I see this pain in my community every single day,” Sanders says. “And I want to not see that pain. And that’s why I’ve put a target on my own back, to try to come up with a solution.”

Uphill Climb

In the pre-pandemic days, residents would leave their homes and go outside and chat with neighbors to pass the hours, or grab a bite to eat in the city. 

Now, Sanders takes his car out to the mainland and just drives.

“I’m just so royally pissed off every time there’s a power outage,” Sanders says. “I just try to de-stress from it.”

With people sheltered-in-place and social distancing, there aren’t many options. Doyle finds herself playing board games with her roommates by candlelight. It’s not as fun as it sounds. 

It’s a frustrating situation, but through it all, at the very least, Sanders has seen his “scrappy” community fight for each other by delivering groceries, donating food, and in Williams’ case — starting a food distribution site aimed at students. 

“The residents on Treasure Island are resilient,” Williams says. “They are a powerful group of people.”

Sanders says that the city government — with the exception of Haney — often forgets about Treasure Island. “We know that if we don’t do it for each other, who else is going to do it?” 

Barklee Sanders sits under a power line by an open field near his Treasure Island apartment on Friday, May 22, 2020. Photo by Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Weekly

Still, it often feels like an uphill climb — one that residents shouldn’t have to endure.

“Why am I fighting to have reliable power? This is the Bay Area,” Sanders says. “There are billions of dollars that surround us.”

Getting Treasure Island the attention and resources it needs can take a toll on its advocates. Williams says she doesn’t get the option to break down as a community leader, as a mother educating her children from home and as a human being trying to keep food on the table while the lights go out.

“If someone did give me a break, and said, ‘I just want you to cry, I want you to let it out,’ I would probably scream from the top of my lungs,” Williams says. “This has been so difficult.”

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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