Thousands in Southeast Michigan struggle with prolonged power outages

Lawmakers call for hearings on utilities after ice storms

By: - March 1, 2023 7:57 am

An ice storm swept across southern Michigan resulting in widespread power outages on Feb. 23, 2023 | Susan J. Demas

“We had one resident who was on a powered oxygen tank sitting in his car to try to charge it. … Another resident told us that their neighbor, who is in their 80s, was hospitalized for hypothermia,” state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) said on Tuesday. 

Those are some of the accounts from residents in her Southeast Michigan district who continue to face challenges stemming from prolonged power outages in below-freezing temperatures.

Sen. Mallory McMorrow | Susan J. Demas

McMorrow is no stranger to these struggles. Her elderly mother-in-law and brother-in-law with special needs were among those without power until late Monday, making it necessary for her and her husband, Ray Wert, to refill a generator for their house every six hours so their home was habitable.

After a 12-hour ice storm wreaked havoc throughout southern Michigan starting Wednesday night, more than 500,000 DTE Energy customers and 237,000 Consumers Energy customers woke up without heat. Another ice storm on Monday prolonged continuing power outages for some and caused an additional outage (about 45,000 residents with Consumers) for others.

“It’s been just devastating,” McMorrow told the Advance. “ … There’s a difference between being forgiving when your power goes out for half a day or a day, [versus] when it’s out for a week.”

Detroit-based DTE is the state’s second-largest public utility and provides electricity to 2.2 million Michiganders. Consumers Energy, the state’s largest energy provider, serves 6.7 million customers across the state.

Washtenaw County was among the hardest-hit areas in the state. After residents awoke Thursday to temperatures in their homes dipping into the low 50s and mid-40s, many sought shelter at their local district library.

The Westgate branch alone saw nearly 3,000 people come through its doors on Thursday, said Eli Neidurger, director of the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL).

“Across the entire system [of four library branches] we had 7,000 people” that day, Neidurger said. Friday was only slightly less busy with 6,800 people visiting all four branches.

“Our storm period totals for Westgate specifically — Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday — we had 9,291 people through the doors,” he said. 

Compared to an average week, the average door count across each district library during that time doubled.

The Westgate branch “was a very busy place, there was not a seat in the house,”Neidurger said.  We got out all of the extra furniture, we got out all of our extra plugs, we did some pop-up programming, … a couple of impromptu storytimes here and there.

Stopped meters in Ann Arbor | Laina G. Stebbins

“But you know, rolling with the demands of the community is what libraries are here for,” Neidurger continued. “ … We are prepared for our neighborhood branches to be used in this way, in partnership with emergency management as needed.”

The AADL also partnered with the city of Ann Arbor to offer overnight shelter on Thursday, complete with cots and snacks from the city so residents could seek refuge without paying for a hotel.

Counties including Washtenaw, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne also provided warming shelters, as did the city of Lansing.

Detroit organizer Kamau Clark, who works with We the People Michigan Action Fund, told the Advance that community members are experiencing “debilitating fees and expenses” as a result of the prolonged outages.

“There’s a lot of anger and frustration,” Clark said, adding that he spoke on Monday with a young woman whose house had been 40 degrees since Friday and was unable to refrigerate insulin for her grandparent.

“It’s a really, really prime time for us to pass some laws and bills and policy that will impact us 10 to 20 years from now, when we’re talking about our grid and infrastructure costs.”

In addition to complaints about lack of investment in certain communities, residents and activists like Clark are also displeased with the idea of DTE seeking another rate increase in the midst of its inefficient outage response.

So is Luke Londo, the Hazel Park mayor pro tem and a member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. He spoke about having to “abandon ship” at his 50-degree home after deeming it unsafe for his five-month-old son.

Hazel Park Councilmember Luke Londo

His family sought refuge at his mother-in-law’s home — which unfortunately led to his child’s grandmother catching COVID-19.

With an entire household sick with COVID-19 — Londo, his wife and their baby — Londo said he understands the frustration of Hazel Park residents who have to navigate through prolonged power outages while also dealing with health issues.

“Hazel Park has been chronically under-invested in by DTE,” Londo said. “So when these types of situations happen, we tend to be one of the communities that seems to be most impacted.

“The most vulnerable people from this, I really wonder how they were able to make it through.”

On Monday, a swath of nonprofit organizations, including the Great Lakes Business Network, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), released a joint statement urging Democratic leaders to act swiftly to hold utilities accountable.

The groups also characterized DTE’s request for a rate hike as “adding insult to injury.”

“Michigan residents pay the highest rates in the Midwest for the least reliable service and that needs to change,” the statement reads. “ … That is why we call on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, the Michigan Legislature and the Michigan Public Service Commission to continue holding utilities accountable and advancing policies that address climate change while prioritizing equity, health, and affordability.”

Several lawmakers have also called for hearings on utilities to address the shortcomings, while Nessel has said both DTE and Consumers should proactively issue credits for residents affected by the outages.

“Residents deserve a grid they can rely on,” Nessel said in a statement Monday.

“Despite asking for record increases time and time again, our utilities have failed to adequately invest in their own infrastructure or prepare for these storm events, choosing instead to leave ratepayers in the dark. Our current service quality standards are not sufficient, and it is incumbent on the utilities to right this wrong.”

State Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Dearborn) has also said he plans to introduce a bill that would require DTE and Consumers to pay customers for every hour of power outages.

Currently, DTE has plans to pay customers a flat rate of $35 if they have been without power for more than 96 hours.

State Senate Energy and Environment Chair Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) said in a statement Tuesday that his panel intends to investigate the situation before holding hearings.

“The storm puts a spotlight on existing policies or potential policies that can help us when these kinds of weather events hit,” McCann told the Advance in a phone interview

“There are plans to fully assess the situation,” he said, adding that then“in the coming weeks, once everyone’s lit back up, we’ll get hearings.” 

McCann emphasized that Michigan has a “complex arrangement” with utilities like DTE and Consumers Energy in that they are regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC). He said for that reason, the MPSC will be a big part of the conversation moving forward.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.