U.N. pair: Detroit water shut-offs a ‘perfect storm’

Jeff Karoub
Associated Press

Detroit – — United Nations human rights experts called Detroit’s mass water shut-offs “a man-made perfect storm” Monday and called on city officials to restore water to those unable to pay, including those with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

Meanwhile, city officials said the two lawyers’ actions and conclusions were agenda-driven and not based on “facts” about the city’s progress in helping residents keep or regain service.

Leilani Farha and Catarina de Albuquerque, who were in town to observe the effect of water service shut-offs, said they affect the poorest and most vulnerable — and particularly discriminate against Detroit’s majority black population.

The representatives of the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner made the trip after activists appealed to the U.N. for assistance. They visited residents who have lost water service or have struggled to keep it, and they met with Mayor Mike Duggan and water department officials for about two hours Monday.

The city, the nation’s largest municipality to file for bankruptcy, said about 27,000 shut-offs occurred between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30. Most shut-offs were halted for several weeks during the summer to give residents a chance to enter payment plans but they resumed and topped 5,100 in September.

De Albuquerque said she has seen shut-offs in other U.S. cities and developed nations, but nothing like Detroit. “The scale of the disconnections in the city is unprecedented.”

The mayor’s top aide, Alexis Wiley, said the city is “very disappointed” with the U.N. visit. She said Detroit has 33,000 people in payment plans — up 15,000 since August — and logged a drop of more than 50 percent in residential calls for water help.

“They weren’t interested in the facts,” Wiley said. “They took a position and never once (before Monday) reached out to the city for data.”