Detroit — City officials are counting on a $200 million, four-year upgrade underway on the city's aging power grid to help avoid another system-wide shutdown like the one on Tuesday that forced evacuations, trapped people on elevators and darkened hospital rooms and public buildings.
The widespread power outage is "another reminder of how much work we still have to do to rebuild the city," Mayor Mike Duggan said.
The city and DTE Energy are in the early stages of the project to update the city's electrical grid, which hasn't been modernized for decades. DTE is paying for the upgrades during an 18-month inspection of the system. Work began in July; when the transition is complete in about four years, DTE will run the system and the city will be out of the power business.
"Everybody is aware the system has not gotten the attention it needed over the past several decades because of the city's ongoing financial problems," said Randi Berris, DTE Energy spokeswoman. "One of the key reasons why this migration is happening is because DTE can provide the reliability and affordability to the customers that are on the (Public Lighting Department) system."
A major cable failed at the Mistersky Power Generation Plant on Detroit's riverfront about 9:30 a.m. During the Public Lighting Department's efforts to reconnect customers through another circuit, a breaker on the new circuit failed, triggering the shutdown around 10:30 a.m. that resulted in the loss of power to all customers on the city's grid.
The outage darkened traffic lights and buildings downtown, including hospitals and fire stations. Nine hundred "customer locations" and 740 traffic signals were affected, the city said. The city did not lose 911 dispatch service.
Power was fully restored by 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Interruptions can be common for old, taxed systems like Detroit's, officials said.
"There's been so much neglected for so long," Duggan said. "We've got a lot to do."
The upgrades, when complete, will include new utility poles, transformers, substations and cables — such as the one that failed at the former Mistersky Power Plant.
"This situation is not going to slow down our efforts to ... restore the city," said council President Brenda Jones.
Power was lost at Joe Louis Arena, Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, the Detroit Institute of Arts and some buildings at Wayne State University.
The Mistersky plant was used about a decade ago to produce power for the city, said Detroit's chief operating officer, Gary Brown. But Brown said the plant hasn't produced any power for the past eight or nine years. The city buys its power from DTE Energy and it ties into the Detroit system at the Mistersky plant.
The city has 115 customers covering 900 locations on the PLD system. There also are 900 traffic signals citywide. The city's lighting grid also includes about five multi-unit apartment buildings.
Officials said no injuries related to the outage were reported, and emergency crews responded to all calls without interruption.
DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital ran on partial power, but Children's Hospital of Michigan and DMC Sinai Grace still had power. The Wayne County Jail ran on backup power and reported no problems. As a precaution, emergency trauma patients at DMC were diverted to other hospitals, including Henry Ford and St. John's Main, said Sarah Collica, DMC spokeswoman.
Crews reserved generator power for critical needs.
Power at Detroit Receiving was diverted from anything deemed nonessential, including the first-floor public bathrooms and employee cafeterias.
"We are feeding the patients but the employees are fending for themselves," said Conrad Mallett Jr., DMC chief administration officer.
Detroit resident Daletha Green, 40, arrived at Detroit Receiving around 11:30 a.m. for a follow-up appointment at the hospital's burn unit.
"When we got in there, it was dark," she said. "Nurses and doctors had flashlights."
As a result of the outage Tuesday, Detroit Public Schools operated for a half-day, after 87 of its 97 schools were affected, the district announced. Full power was restored Tuesday night and classes were set to resume Wednesday.
Wanda Moreland, who works at a DTE Energy payment center, collected her son Justin from Walter Chrysler Elementary around noon Tuesday instead of the usual 3:30 p.m.
Fortunately, she works a half day on Tuesdays because she takes classes at night, she said.
"I got a couple of automated calls from the school and his teacher called to let me know the power was out," she said.
Wayne State University's main campus was closed Tuesday, including evening classes and events. Its extension centers remained open.
Tom Reynolds, associate director of public relations, said the university followed a crisis plan, with campus police searching buildings to make sure students and others were safe.
At Cobo Center, staff members were sent home before noon, along with workers setting up the auto show, according to spokesman Phil Frame.
At the municipal building, staff, employees and visitors used flashlights to navigate basement hallways. Hundreds of people streamed out of the building as authorities announced the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center would be evacuated and shuttered for the day.
Wayne County sheriff's deputies assisted the disabled and elderly out of the building.
Brad Lyons and his aunt, Mary Holt, who is in her 80s and in a wheelchair, were on the 11th floor on the court side of the building and were unable to get down. Lyons said sheriff's deputies patiently walked her down the stairs.
"They were working hard," he said. "They got everybody calm and cool. They got them in order."
At Frank Murphy, the elevators were out and deputies directed crowds toward the jammed stairwells. A group of people were stuck in an elevator on the sixth floor. Some people also were stuck in another elevator for a few minutes.
Staff Writers Tom Greenwood and George Hunter contributed to this report.