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2011: KPBS Top Investigative Stories

December 19, 2011 12:30 p.m.


Amita Sharma, KPBS Investigative Reporter

Related Story: 2011: KPBS Top Investigative Stories


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition is the start of our year-end news roundups. Where were you when the lights went out? It's been only about three months since San Diego County and much of Southern California was plunged into darkness for hours by the biggest and most expensive blackout in history. Amita Sharma covered that story, and she's here to talk about what we learned since the outage, and other top investigative news stories of 2011. Welcome, Amita.

SHARMA: Thank you for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us for a moment, how did the power outage start on September 8th?

SHARMA: A worker at Arizona's power company was -- noticed that a piece of equipment that monitors voltage wasn't working. So he took it offline. Normally, that's not a problem. There would be no disruption. However, this time, it just caused the major line going from Arizona, Yuma, to imperial county to San Diego to go down. And then the other line coming in, down the I-five corridor didn't provide the necessary power. We had a loss of power to 67 million people. People in San Diego County, part was Orange County, Baja California, imperial county, and parts of Arizona.

CAVANAUGH: We heard a lot at the time about backup systems and why they didn't function the way they should have. What about those?

SHARMA: Well, we tried to get some answers about those system, and that's what's really flummoxed people who are looking at this. At the time of the blackout, in the early hours after the lights first went off, SDG&E officials said there was enough power online to make up for the line that had gone down. And then huthis other line coming down through the I-five corridor. The deplanned at the time the line went down was 4.3 million megawatts, which is about power for about 4.3 million people. And so we asked SDG&E how much power then was being generated at your thee local power plants in San Diego County. They wouldn't tell us. That is information that's easily retrievable for them. They wouldn't tell us. That would have helped answer what went wrong. We asked the California system operator how much power was being generated at that time. They wouldn't tell us either. There are investigations. The California independent system operator which is in charge of managing power thought the system is looking at this, the federal energy regulatory commission is looking at this, the north American electric liability is looking at this. There was a hearing of lawmakers trying to get some answers, and they said they don't know why the backup plans didn't work, and that the system is indeed built to with stand a disruption like this. For a piece of monitoring system in Arizona, when you flip a switch, the system is not designed to go down all the time. And we're told it could take up to a year to find out.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in introducing this segment, I mentioned this was the most expensive blackout in local history. Do we know how much it cost?

SHARMA: Preliminarily, are the cost to the San Diego area economy were about $100 million.

CAVANAUGH: And just to bring listeners back, you remember you went in the day after, into grocery stores, and shelves were empty of yogurts and cheeses and milks, and so forth, because the power was out for such a long time.

SHARMA: Businesses shut down, gas stations shut down, schools shut down. It was a tremendous hit.

CAVANAUGH: Are there some things that are being changed?

SHARMA: Millions of gallons of sewage spilled into the San Diego bay, and the lagoons, and one of the surprising things we learned is that there are some much stations in San Diego that don't have backups. They generally rely on SDG&E to provide backup generators when those instances are happening. So now at least the City of San Diego is studying whether or not they should put backup generators at the two pump stations that failed.

CAVANAUGH: And so our listeners know, KPBS is also working on finding some backup generation, so that another power outage won't knock KPBS off the air. We heard San Diegans in general were very unprepared for a big blackout like this. We did a show a couple days after, and a lot of people call would in talking about how completely unprepared everyone was. They didn't know what to do. Any efforts to get people more prepared?

SHARMA: I think emergency personnel -- PSAs are always done urging people, have enough water, flashlights on hand, have food on hand, keep this in your car. Yet human beings being who they are don't prepare for these kinds of events. So what we saw in the aftermath almost immediately people descended on stores clearing out shelves of batteries and water and flashlights and candles. So informal surveys tell us that people weren't prepared. Informal surveys also tell us that people are working on getting prepared.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now, I know that one of the stories KPBS covered this year, and you took the lead on, was the child sex trafficking industry in San Diego. You actually did a three part series on who is being trafficked and how the Internet is used to sell young girls in our community. What did you find out? How widespread is child sex traffic something

SHARMA: Nobody really knows. And the reason is that the girls who are being trafficked don't tell anyone. They don't tell authorities. The pimps who are selling them don't tell anybody. And the men who are paying for six with these young girl it is aren't telling anyone either. But estimates say nationally that there are anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 children being trafficked in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Who are the girls who are being sold?

SHARMA: Well, they are runaways, foster children, some are even disabled. They are girls who come from troubled backgrounds. I'll tell you a story in a minute that doesn't fit that profile though. And pimps know these girls. They kind of sense who they are on sight. They find them at malls, on campus at schools, at bus stations, and they prey on that troubled background. And they get them to fall in love with them. And once they have fallen for them, then they say, well, gosh, if you love me, then you'll do this for me. And very often, they're successful. And if that love route doesn't working they use coercion, and ultimatums, and they beat these girls

CAVANAUGH: And who did you find out the pimps are?

SHARMA: Most of the pimps in San Diego County are members of street gangs. They have found that selling girls is far more lucrative and les vulnerable to being caught by police because girls won't talk. And it's more lucrative because these girls can be used over and over and over again. It's estimated that a person can make $300,000 per girl tax free each year.

CAVANAUGH: Who did you speak to on this series? You spoke to a number of different people, girls, and police, investigative officers. Tell us about that.

SHARMA: I spoke with one girl who was lured into this bile her best friend. He was a student at a high school in Chula Vista. And she was a bit a loner. Then her pest friend called her up one day, invited her to a party at a hotel, and when she got there, it turns out that this best friend was the only person there along with her boyfriend. And they drugged her, and then they took pictures of her in her bra and underwear. And they posted those photographs online. And within minutes, calls started coming in from men willing to pay up to $200 to have sex with this girl. Westbound the span of several hours that night, she ended up sleeping with six different people. And that's how she ultimately got into it.

CAVANAUGH: These are terribly sad stories. What kind of reaction did you get to this series?

SHARMA: Shock, surprise, discomfort. A lot of discomfort. S I think some people felt they shouldn't have to listen to stories about these subjects while they're having their morning coffee. But for the most part, it was shock and outrage.

CAVANAUGH: This was also the year that an maral-Al-Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike. You've done a lot of stories on him and his ties to San Diego. Remind us of that.

SHARMA: He was born in New Mexico. He went back to Yemen for a while, then he became a grad student at San Diego state university during which he also became the Imam at the al-rabat mosque in La Mesa, where he held several private sessions with two of the September 11th hijacker. He moved back to Yemen after the September 11th attacks and then surfaced as someone who currentlied Jihad against Americans. He told Muslims all over the world through his videos on his website that it was their moral duty to kill Americans. He was considered to be the leader of Al-Qaeda on the Arab penin you sula.

CAVANAUGH: And that's why he was targeted by the United States?

SHARMA: Yes, the U.S. government said he has in effect declared war on America by advocating the killing of innocent Americans, and therefore we should treat him as we should treat a country that declares war on us

CAVANAUGH: Or an enemy combatant. How was he killed?

SHARMA: In ray U.S. drone strike on September 30th.

CAVANAUGH: How did the Muslim community react to his assassination?

SHARMA: He was a local Imam, and he was somewhat beloved there. And he spoke English without an accent. And he spoke Arabic without an accent. And she talked to people about the importance of being connected to God. He had very, very strong ortory skills. And people were mystified as to how this guy had gone Astray. They couldn't understand it. So I think they're still confused about what happened. That's what they told me. On the other hand, I talked to Muslim civil rights groups. Care, the counsel on American Islamic relation, and one of the gentlemen there said we understand this guy was a terrorist. We don't cob cone what he stood for. However, this was an extra judicial killing. Why not capture him and bring him here and put him on trial?

CAVANAUGH: Are there any big stories you see on the horizon for 2011, Amita?

SHARMA: Well, I think the economy and all of its effects. All of the fallout from the economy, the poor economy, the weak economy on society, on people. Unemployment, foreclosures, wage stagnation, and how that's affecting people's lives.

CAVANAUGH: You're gonna have a big year with your investigative beat.

SHARMA: Yes, I am.