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Santa Rosa man on oxygen dies after PG&E shut-off

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Gerald Niimi survived the October 2017 firestorm, and so did the home near Santa Rosa’s Skyhawk community where he and his wife, Naomi, lived for 40 years. But smoke from the blazes that devastated Sonoma County didn’t help his lungs, nor did smoke from the Camp fire that blanketed the Bay Area last November. Early this year, an incurable lung disease he learned he had the year before forced him to start using oxygen machines to breathe.

Naomi Niimi, in an interview, recalled how she found him after a summer car crash on Calistoga Road cut their power for a few hours. Unable to call out for help with a dead landline and without a cellphone, the former Vietnam veteran stationed himself in the still dark heat of their powerless home, with his tank’s level cranked down to preserve his oxygen.

Then came PG&E’s big planned anti-wildfire outage that knocked out power to more than 2 million Californians earlier this month, including the Niimis. Gerald Niimi lost his life in the aftermath of that shut-off, when he and Naomi had to scramble to a bed and air that Gerald could breathe. He was one of about 6,900  Sonoma County customers in a PG&E financial aid program for customers with certain medical conditions.

As the Oct. 9 shut-off took effect, even a small generator to power the oxygen concentrator Gerald used to breathe was too heavy for Naomi. She couldn’t lift the respirator either. Their oxygen provider was overwhelmed with requests for extra tanks, she said, and she figured Gerald’s remaining oxygen would last for maybe nine hours if he didn’t eat, speak or exert himself.

“The power wasn’t going to turn back on in nine hours,” she said, “so it was up to us to figure something out.”

She drove them to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, trying to get Gerald admitted through the emergency room. Hospital staffers offered oxygen, but not a place in the medical facility. Gerald’s hospice provider wasn’t able to find him a space in Santa Rosa, but did track down a bed in Cloverdale. There was a smaller oxygen machine there, but that barely provided enough air for Gerald’s battered lungs.

“He spent two days essentially gasping for breath,” Naomi said.

All summer, he’d been in good spirits, if not great health. The stress of worrying about running out of oxygen during the outage, plus the increased energy he needed to expend to breathe, wore him down.

The Tuesday after the fire, he was given some morphine in hopes of calming down his respiratory system. Naomi remembers what she heard before Gerald Niimi, 75, passed away in his sleep Oct. 15.

“He said, ‘I just can’t go on like this,’” she said. “‘I can’t breathe. My lungs are shot.’”

She has friends who lost their homes in the Tubbs fire and said she doesn’t begrudge PG&E’s decision to cut the power. But she can’t help but think Gerald’s death was a consequence of the outage, however indirect and unintentional.

“I think that that power outage, the stress, the lack of oxygen — it was really the tipping point for him,” she said.

PG&E has about 6,900 Sonoma County customers in its medical baseline program, which provides financial aid to customers who need power because of certain medical conditions, said PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. (Naomi identified Gerald as one of them.) About 2,700 were expected to be impacted in the outage planned for this weekend, and about 1,950 were affected during the outage that preceded Gerald’s death, Contreras said.

Customer privacy issues made it difficult to provide specifics, Contreras said, but she offered her condolences when a reporter relayed Gerald’s fate over the phone.

“Our hearts definitely go out to the family, though, for their loss,” Contreras said. “That sounds like a terrible incident.”

Contreras said the planned, indefinite outages were “definitely a hardship for everybody, especially our medically fragile,” but she also defended PG&E’s decision to shut off the power.

“It is a difficult situation for everybody,” Contreras said, “but we do stand behind our decisions to call these public safety power shut-offs, because the wildfire threat is that real and is that extreme.”

Gerald signed up for the medical baseline program earlier this year, Naomi said. She didn’t have a problem receiving notifications from PG&E, and said the utility “did better” with the outage that began Wednesday than the one that preceded Gerald’s death, which she said “seemed somewhat premature” because the lack of obvious winds in many places.

She acknowledged that PG&E had set up community resource centers but noted that it would be tough for her to get there, and thought that she might have hadto leave behind her 10-year-old beagle, Monkey Business, or Monkey for short. (Contreras said the rules allowed for pets in cases of emotional support, and “there is a broad definition of emotional support.”)

Though Naomi believes PG&E’s outage hastened her husband’s demise, she also said she thinks she could have done more to prepare. Maybe if she had to do it over, she would have had the generator set up on a cart to make it easier to move, or would be more willing to impose on neighbors for help.

“We considered what we thought were reasonable possibilities at the time,” she said.

Gerald, a native of Hawaii, would have turned 76 next month. He was a U.S. Navy Seabee who served in Vietnam before he and Naomi settled in Southern California, where he worked as an electrical engineer on offshore oil rigs near Santa Barbara, according to his obituary. Upon moving to Santa Rosa, he worked as a geothermal engineer and geothermal consultant. His later career included consulting related to energy production in The Geysers — the origin of the Kincade fire that broke out this week and has swollen to nearly 24,000 acres.

Naomi described Gerald as a sports-wild introvert, at his social best among small groups. He was a highly competitive golfer — his short game was solid, though his driving suffered with his illness — and “he didn’t like making crummy shots,” she said. Two comments she heard from other people who knew him well were that he was “such a nice guy” and “really smart.”

A celebration of life will be held at the Bennett Valley Golf Course at 1 p.m. Nov. 17 at Legends at Bennett Valley, 3328 Yulupa Ave. There later will be a private ceremony in Hawaii.

Though Naomi misses him, she doesn’t relish the thought of him having to endure the smoke blowing down into Santa Rosa from the Kincade fire.

“In a perverse way, I’m just very glad he’s not here to experience this, because he would just be freaking out.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5220 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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