730K remain without power after Michigan wind storm

James David Dickson, and Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

More than 730,000 Michiganians out of the 1 million who lost power Wednesday remained without electricity Thursday afternoon, but DTE Energy and Consumers energy said power should be restored to most of their customers by the end of Sunday.

Gov. Rick Snyder, in a press briefing with officials from the state’s two biggest utilities, called the windstorm “the largest combined statewide” power outage event in Michigan history.

“Every corner of the state was affected by this storm,” he said. “… At one point, approximately one-third of Michigan residents were affected by the power outage.”

Snyder, who activated the State Emergency Operations Center late Wednesday to coordinate local response efforts, said Michigan State Police, Red Cross and other community groups across the state are working to ensure warming centers and other resources are available for residents without power.

But he also urged Michigan residents to “look out for one another” by checking in on potentially vulnerable neighbors, including seniors.

“This is when Michiganders are at our best,” he said, “when we have challenges like this.”

More than 800,000 DTE customers were affected by the storm, according to President and CEO Jerry Jerry Norcia, and more than 4,000 wires were downed by falling trees.

In a 4 p.m. Thursday briefing, Norcia told reporters that crews had restored power for 225,000 customers, leaving about 575,000 to go. The utility primarily serves Metro Detroit and Southwest Michigan.

Consumers Energy President Patti Poppe said 320,000 of its customers lost power because of the storm. By Thursday afternoon, the utility had restored power to roughly half of those customers, leaving 160,000 without power.

Norcia said DTE expects to restore power to 90 percent of its customers by Sunday night, and is aiming to have all area schools back up and running by Monday morning. Consumers also hopes to wrap up restoration work by then end of Sunday.

“Near-hurricane force winds pounded our area for more approximately 12 hours,” said Norcia, calling it the largest storm the company has experienced in its 100-year history. “I was out this morning with our crews surveying the damage, and the tree damage and wire damage is very extensive.”

DTE has deployed more than 3,500 workers, including 1,500 of its own linemen, 750 linemen who came in from other states, 700 company tree trimmers and another 250 tree trimmers coming in from other states, according to Norcia.

“If you see a downed power line, assume it is energized, and report it immediately,” he said.

DTE Electric president Trevor Lauer said clearing downed power lines is a top priority.

"That's taking a lot of our crew strength," he said.

Another priority: substations that have lost power, which is about 30 of the company's 765 "general service" substations.

Once those matters are resolved and power is restored at hospitals and nursing homes, the priority will shift to other structures "from the largest numbers to the smallest."

"Some lines serve 4,000 people; some serve 15," Lauer said.

Power wasn't all that was lost in the wind. DTE Energy's Outage Map went down as well. Lauer attributed the failure to unprecedented use, far above previous highs.​

At Consumers Energy, there are around 7,900 downed wires and 1,000 broken poles, spokeswoman Deb Dodd said. The hardest hit counties of Genesee, Kent, Jackson and Kalamazoo may be in the dark until Sunday night.

Poppe said Consumers, which serves communities across the state, had deployed 2,200 workers for storm response and has received assistance from approximately 180 three-person crews from other states.

“The dispersed nature of this event creates additional challenges to have enough people all across the state to restore power,” Poppe said.

Michigan State Police do not have a full tally of injuries associated with the storm, but two people died Thursday night in a related car crash in Clare County, according to Inspector Chris Bush.

“A tree came down, caused a car to hit another tree, and two people were killed in a car accident,” Bush said.

As crews work to restore power, municipalities plan to open warming centers for residents without heat.

Around 125 sleeping cots will be available at the Warren Community Center beginning 6 p.m. Thursday, according to Mayor Jim Fouts.

Royal Oak's Salter Community Center at 1545 E. Lincoln will be open for 24 hours through Sunday, or as needed, city officials said. If no one arrives to use the warming center by 10 p.m. Thursday, the building will be locked and will reopen Friday morning. DTE Energy will provide bottled water and blankets, however residents staying overnight may want to bring, pillows, blankets or sleeping bags from home, officials said.

The City of Detroit will open four 24-hour warming centers beginning at 7 p.m. Those locations are Crowell Community Center at 16630 Lahser, Coleman A. Young Recreation Center at 2751 Bradby Drive, Farwell Recreation Center at 2711 E. Outer Drive and Patton Recreation Center at 2301 Woodmere.

Other centers are scheduled to open throughout the Metro Detroit area.

Temperatures in Metro Detroit are expected to reach 28 degrees Friday with a low of 13 degrees.

Wednesday brought wind storms with gusts north of 60 mph, officials said. A warmer than normal winter created softer ground, making it easier for trees to uproot and knock down more power lines.

The winds themselves made it tougher for crews to repair above-ground power lines. Despite DTE crews working 16-hour shifts, more help was needed and reinforcements were called in from Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Consumers' outages were mostly outstate, ranging from the Michigan-Ohio border on the south up to Cadillac on the north, and out past Holland to the west. Consumers has brought in 130 additional workers from Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky to help, with more crews from Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa on their way Thursday.

No one had to tell Terry Zuzindlak how wild the winds were Wednesday.

A VW GTI Fahrenheit owned by Lincoln Russell found itself smashed under a tree in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit, March 8, 2017.

When gusts reached 60 mph in Metro Detroit, snapping tree limbs and fueling fires in the Motor City, he found evidence. The staffer with a district maintenance department had to help clear a 60-foot evergreen that toppled onto Catalpa Road outside Berkley High School.

“I’m searching for a placard here from the family that planted it,” Zuzindlak said. “We moved the tree out of the road and out of the way.”

The tree fell around lunchtime and the children took the opportunity to take photos of it with their cellphones, he added. “The kids loved it.”

Awe-inducing scenes, and plenty of hassles, unfolded across the region and around Michigan after a fierce system swept through with what DTE Energy officials called “the largest storm” in the utility company's history.

“We’ve been preparing for a significant weather event in southeast Michigan, but the severity of the wind storm that hit today exceeded all of our forecasts,” Trevor Lauer, president and COO of DTE Electric, said during a news conference.

The winds owed to a strong low pressure system north of the Great Lakes, which brought a cold front to Lower Michigan, said Brian Tilley, a National Weather Service meteorologist. Winds ahead and behind the cold front are “intense,” he said.

How intense? The numbers tell the story. Winds gusted up to 63 mph in Ann Arbor, and 66 mph a few miles southeast. Airports in Ypsilanti, Pontiac and Troy had gusts measured between 59 and 61 mph.

At Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, winds reached 58 mph. That caused flight delays and forced some planes to use crosswind runways designed for such blustery days, airport representatives said.

Nearby at Willow Run Airport, the University of Michigan men’s basketball team had a scare when the charter plane it was on “aborted takeoff ... and went off the end of Runway 23L,” officials said in a statement. None of the seven crew members or 109 passengers reported injuries, but the airport was closed, according to the release.

Damage was reported statewide. More than 180 students at an early childhood center in Barry County’s Woodland Township, southeast of Grand Rapids, were bused to a nearby high school after winds blew part of the center’s roof away. Part of the roof at Birch Run High School, southeast of Saginaw, also was blown away, but the school was not evacuated.

The winds also ripped vinyl siding in Flint, blew a roof off a commercial building in Washtenaw County and overturned two semi-trucks between Ann Arbor and Dundee, the National Weather Service reported.

The winds were believed to have stoked fires in the region, including one that left five people dead in east Detroit.

The Detroit Fire Department brought in two extra rigs and eight firefighters on overtime because of the many runs Wednesday, said Mike Nevin, head of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association union.

“They were running from one run to the next,” he said.

Novi firefighters battled a brush fire near 12 Mile and Meadowbrook. The blaze was exacerbated by the high winds.

Ravonne Harvey of Southfield stood outside Angell Elementary School Wednesday afternoon, where power to the building was out. As she waited to pick up her fourth-grade granddaughter, the wind blowing all around her, Harvey was unfazed.

“What can we do? The wind belongs to God,” she said. “It doesn’t belong to us.”

In the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit, a tree fell on the “dream car” of Detroiter Lincoln Russell, a Volkswagen GTI Fahrenheit, less than a year after he bought it. The tree toppled over about 12:20 p.m. Wednesday, said Russell’s roommate Brian Ambrozy, who posted a picture of the tree on Twitter. The tree also hit a power pole, Ambrozy said, and the pole looked like it was "dangling by one bolt.”

Russell was in Montreal, Ambrozy said. Does he know what’s happened to his dream car, the one he went all the way to New Jersey to buy?

“Oh, yeah, he knows,” Ambrozy said.

How to stay safe

— Stay at least 20 feet away from a downed wire and anything it may contact

— Watch for crews working on the roads and slow down

— If your home gets too cold, run a bathtub of hot water to draw heat into the house, according to AccuWeather. Residents also turn faucets to a trickle to prevent pipes from freezing.

— Keep doors and windows closed, and use black blankets or towels to insulate windows and/or door cracks.

— Do not rely on gas stoves, charcoal grills or other open-flame heat sources. They can cause a build-up of deadly carbon monoxide gas, which is odorless and invisible.

— Never use a generator in an attached garage, basement or near air intakes. Never fuel a generator when it is running. Without proper ventilation, a generator can create deadly carbon monoxide. Use a licensed electrician to connect a generator.

To report an outage or downed wire

DTE: Click here, call 1 (800) 477-4747, or use the DTE Energy Mobile App

Consumers: Click here or call 1 (800) 477-5050

Consumers outage alerts

Click here or text "REG" to 232273

Source: DTE Energy, Consumers Energy and AccuWeather

Staff Writers Jennifer Chambers, Jonathan Oosting, Leonard Fleming, George Hunter, Candice Williams and Associated Press contributed.