More than 215,000 still without power, DTE urges caution around downed lines

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

More than 215,000 customers remained without power Wednesday after a Monday night storm ripped through southeast Michigan, toppling trees and downing power lines. 

DTE Energy Co. on Tuesday said the storm knocked down more than 3,000 power lines in its service territory, posing a threat of electrocution to anyone who comes too close.

The company warned people to stay away from the downed lines, which might be buried by debris, and said it was securing the dangerous lines "as quickly as possible."

DTE workers keep an eye on a downed street pole of the corner of Greiner and Goulburn streets in Detroit.

Consumers Energy reported 34,384 customers were without power as of 1:45 p.m. Wednesday; DTE said 180,721 of its customers had no service as of 1:45 p.m. Wednesday.

“We are grateful for our customers’ patience as our crews continue working tonight. We know it’s not easy to be without power in your home or business, and we want people to know we’re committed to finishing our work as safely and as fast as we can,” said Amanda Wagenschutz of Consumers Energy.

The company will provide water and ice to residents of Jackson who were affected by the outages on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. More information can be found on Consumer Energy's Facebook page.

One teen dead, one boy injured 

Downed power lines killed a 14-year-old girl in Monroe late Monday and seriously injured an 8-year-old boy in Warren.

The teen was walking with a friend in her backyard after smelling what she thought was a bonfire. She reached for what she believed was a stick but it was a downed line. First responders who arrived at the scene found her in contact with an energized wire. 

The next morning, a pair of boys from Warren were hospitalized  after coming in contact with an active power line outside McKinley Elementary School. The 8-year-old remained in critical condition after touching the downed line. His 10-year-old brother knocked him away from the line with a book bag. 

"It's a really hard day for everyone at DTE," DTE President Trever Lauer said at a  press conference Tuesday in Detroit. "These are the worst days you could possibly have in our business." 

Marking and securing downed lines is the first priority for DTE's response crews and a 1,000-member crew are coming from five other states to help respond to the storm, Lauer said. The utility will then focus on restoring power to health care facilities and nursing homes, then customers with electric medical equipment and then substations. 

DTE workmen repair electrical lines along Sharrow Avenue in Warren on Tuesday.

Lauer said he expects most customers to have power by Friday. 

Lauer spoke at the corner of Grenier Street and Goulburn Avenue on Detroit's eastside, where a tree in a resident's yard crashed into the street during the storm, knocking out a power line and snapping three poles. Roughly 1,400 customers were without power because of the downed line. 

Most of the trees that caused downed power lines were not in DTE's right of way, Lauer said. He said the utility company could not have trimmed them except by the request of a property owner.

DTE was scrutinized by customers, energy advocates and state legislators last year after a major storm swept through the region and left some customers without power for nearly a week. 

The company agreed last year to put an additional $353 million into tree trimming between 2021 and 2023. The Michigan Public Service Commission said the company earned millions of dollars from "unexpectedly higher profits from changed electricity use patterns of its retail customers amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic" and said the work would not be funded through customers' rates.

Where DTE ranks with restoring power

Michigan ranks low among other states in terms of number of power outages per customer, length of power outages and the time it takes to restore power after an outage, according to 2019 industry data compiled last year by the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, a nonprofit that advocates for residential energy customers in Michigan. 

DTE ranked second worst, after Consumers Energy, for having lengthy average restoration times among Michigan electric providers, according to the board's 2021 utility performance report. It ranked fifth worst for average duration of outages and frequency of outages.

A down street pole at the corner of Greiner St. and Goulburn Ave. in Detroit was among the thousands of down power lines that DTE Energy said it faced dealing with on Tuesday.

"We know DTE has done not as good a job as it should have of keeping the maintenance schedules that would allow for reliable service in the area," Citizens Utility Board president Keith Cooley said. "And this is something that we've seen year over year."

Cooley said DTE promises to do more to provide reliable service, but that he has yet to see those promises come to fruition. 

DTE is pursuing a rate increase that would raise residential gas and electric customers' bills 8.8%, about $10 on each average monthly bill, and increase industrial customers' bills 4.1%.

Lauer said rate increases would pay for improving reliability.

Cooley, like some demonstrators who rallied against the proposed rate hike in Detroit this month, said it is unfair for customers, especially low-income customers, to shoulder the cost.

"Why should we be paying higher rates when the service is, and has been, poor all along?" he said. "They need to start taking that (money) out of the stockholders and the company itself until they get to a place where customers are getting the kind of service they expect. Clean, reliable and affordable service."

Most residents of the Village of Wolverine Lake were without power Tuesday because of the storm, Administrator David Gillam said. The damage was extensive, with downed branches, large, uprooted trees, and boats and boat hoists lifted from their docks and tossed around the lake. 

"This is, probably, in terms of intensity, it's got to be near the top of the scale," Gillam said. 

The village has escalated tree trimming in the public right of way since major summer storms last year, he said. While Gillam said DTE customers in Wolverine Lake want reliable service, he said that should be balanced with cost increases.

"I think we’d all like to see more of the trees taken down if that’s gonna keep us from having the more routine power outages — and I would say this was not routine, this storm for us — but again at what cost? On the other hand, we see DTE goes to the (Public Service Commission) in Lansing, and they are asking for millions and millions and millions of dollars of rate increases, and I don't know if people have the stomach for that either."”

Staff Writer Charles Ramirez contributed.