Unprecedented study of 3,000 Michigan public school buildings set to launch in summer

Whitmer keeps state offices closed amid bitter cold, opens aid talks with Trump officials

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Gov. Whitmer and Michigan State Police Capt. Emmitt McGowan at the state Emergency Operations Center on Jan. 30, 2019.

Lansing —  Michigan state government offices will remain closed Thursday amid a winter storm and cold blast that has prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to begin federal disaster funding talks with the Trump administration.

Whitmer declared a state of emergency late Monday after sending non-essential state employees home that day at 10 a.m. The governor closed offices again on Wednesday because of sub-zero  temperatures expected to continue Thursday. 

The ongoing emergency declaration positions Michigan to provide immediate resources to local governments in need and makes it easier for the state to seek federal reimbursement in the future.

“We have been in conversations with the Trump administration,” Whitmer told reporters after touring the Michigan Emergency Operations Center in Dimondale. “What that looks like, at this point, I’m unable to say, but that dialogue is going on.”

State police and officials from the National Weather Service briefed the governor Wednesday morning on the cold front that has produced bitter wind chills across the state, including up to negative 50 degrees in the Upper Peninsula city of Ironwood. 

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service's office in White Lake Township have forecast that dangerous and life-threatening wind chills are expected over the next two days in Southeast Michigan with wind chills plunging to 25 to 45 below zero.

Whitmer opened state government offices on Tuesday, but Thursday's planned closure will be the third of the week. In the face of "dangerously cold sub-zero temperatures," the "priority must continue to be on keeping people safe," she said. 

“It’s not something any governor wants to do on her first month on the job — to shut down the state government twice because of a winter weather advisory,” Whitmer told staff at the emergency operations center. “But … it became very clear that this was the most prudent thing to do.”

The Michigan House and Senate suspended session Wednesday and will remain out of action on Thursday, officials announced. Planned committee hearings have been postponed. Secretary of State branch offices will also remain closed. 

As of mid-day Wednesday, many parts of the state were seeing wind chills of between 25 to 40 degrees below zero, which can produce frostbite on exposed skin in roughly 15 minutes, said Jim Maczko of the National Weather Service.

“Tonight is going to be the coldest night of the week,” Maczko told the governor. “So the extreme exposure risk is there. It’s going to be there for the next 24 to 36 hours.”

Additional snow is expected on the west side of the state and could exacerbate dangerous road conditions, he said.

And next week could be a “roller coaster,” with temperatures rising and leading to rain that could cause ice jams, Maczko added. “So we’re not quite out of the woods after the cold goes away,” he said.

State Police Capt. Emmitt McGowan, commander of the emergency management and homeland security division, told the governor that local governments have so far responded well to the winter conditions.

But it’s “very dangerous out there,” McGowanhe said. “There is the potential for loss of life due to these conditions.”

The Emergency Operations Center that Whitmer activated this week includes liaisons from state government departments, who are on hand to help fulfill requests from local governments while monitoring infrastructure, including energy delivery and propane supplies used to heat homes in the U.P.

Attorney General Dana Nessel and the Michigan Agency for Energy on Wednesday asked Michigan residents to report any instances of suspected price gouging amid the winter emergency. 

“Michigan energy providers should heed this warning: Those who take advantage of consumers will be held accountable,” Nessel said in a statement. “A state of emergency does not make it open season on Michigan’s most vulnerable residents.”

The state police emergency operations center, which opened three years ago, is built to withstand tornadoes and could withstand the impact of a small plane crash.

As of mid-day, no local governments had sought relief from the state.

“The locals have this wrapped” at this point, McGowan said. “We’re just in a ready position.”

Whitmer said her decision to close state government offices on Wednesday was based on a “robust facts” and consultation with various state officials and departments.

“It’s not just the person who’s risking it by going outside,” she said. “It’s other people who are first responders who may have to show up on the scene, and it’s important that people understand the magnitude of this issue.”

Asked how much the government shutdown could cost the state, Whitmer told reporters “you can’t put a price tag on moving swiftly and protecting people.”

That swift action, she said, likely “helped us mitigate what some of the problems could have been.”