Detroit reaching out to 5K households that might not have water amid virus outbreak

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's water department is reaching out to thousands of households that could be occupied but without water as coronavirus cases continue to climb.

This week, Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department is taking steps "out of abundance of caution" to contact 5,000 households as it works to restore service to all accounts previously cutoff for nonpayment amid the virus outbreak, DWSD spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said.

Kirk Myers of Human Fliers leaves a restore water service notice from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department at a home on Edgewood Street in Detroit on Wednesday.

The water department on March 9 identified about 3,600 accounts that had been without water for more than a year and initiated a broad outreach effort after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan unveiled an interim policy to restore water service to customers at a discounted rate.

Of the first properties identified, Peckinpaugh said the department found that close to 800 of the homes already had service re-established under a different account. The remaining 2,800 addresses "were the priority as the households were most likely occupied and without water service," he said. 

The water department hired the Detroit-based community outreach firm Human Fliers to knock on doors at each of the households and distribute door hangers with information on how to get service restored. The team verified some that were vacant and about 2,000 others didn't answer, weren't home or were unoccupied, officials have said. 

A service notice from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is left at a home on Lillibridge Street in Detroit.

On Tuesday, Human Fliers began visiting the 5,000 additional properties, passing out door hangers and attempting to contact any occupants. They plan to visit 750 to 1,000 per day, Peckinpaugh said.

"The second wave of door hangers is going to 5,000 addresses of older accounts that show no water usage," Peckinpaugh said. "We are already finding most of these houses had water restored in another name or are now vacant."

Under the restoration program, eligible residents will pay $25 a month for water service for as long as the coronavirus remains a threat. The first month's payment of $25 will be covered by the state.

To sign up for, residents can call the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at (313) 386-9727 to set up an appointment.

During Detroit City Council's formal session on Tuesday, DWSD Director Gary Brown said 700 water accounts have been restored, 300 others have pending work orders and 300 more slated to be turned off over nonpayment won't be. Additionally, plumbing fixes are being made at 150 Detroit homes to get water flowing again, he said. 

Brown told council members that 100 water department workers are out on the city's streets right now, "turning on water exclusively."

The People's Water Board Coalition has put out a call to the state, asking that emergency water stations be installed and sanitizing products distributed in Detroit and Flint. The group also has warned it is "deeply concerned" that Detroit's water department will be unable to carry out the restoration plan for homes with burst pipes, lead contamination or plumbing worries after been shut off over nonpayment for weeks to years.

As of Wednesday, cases of COVID-19 in the city have soared to 598 and there have been 13deaths. That's up from just 14 cases initially reported in the city last week.

Peckinpaugh said beyond ensuring every home in Detroit that provides access to restore water has it back on, the process also is helping DWSD update existing data with occupancy information. 

Brown reiterated Tuesday that the water department has an open line of communication with activists and encourages them and community members to be in contact with DWSD if they know of households without water that haven't received a response.

“Help us find these people so that we can give them the information and get their water on,” he said. “I want to know where they all are.”