After Michigan storm, customers wait - and wait - for power

February 25, 2023 GMT
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Debbie Fisher sits at the Farwell Recreation Center after her home lost power in Detroit, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Michigan is shivering through extended power outages caused by one of the worst ice storms in decades. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Debbie Fisher sits at the Farwell Recreation Center after her home lost power in Detroit, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Michigan is shivering through extended power outages caused by one of the worst ice storms in decades. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Frustration and anger are mounting among some Michigan utility customers who still were waiting for power to be restored after a massive ice storm this week damaged electricity lines, and the governor called Friday for more accountability on repair efforts by the state’s two largest utilities.

More than 600,000 customers of Detroit-based DTE Energy lost power when the storm plowed Wednesday into southeastern Michigan, while Jackson-based Consumers Energy said about 237,000 of its customers lost electricity.

“Something went boom outside the house and the lights flickered and went out” on Wednesday, said Debbie Fisher of Detroit. “I said, ‘Here we go again.’ It happens every two or three years.”

On Friday afternoon, Fisher and her 47-year-old son finally checked into a warming center on Detroit’s eastside. “I’m taking it as a lesson learned. Life is like that and you have to roll with the punches,” Fisher said.

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DTE Energy said more than half of its customers who lost power should have it back by Friday night. The utility has about 2.3 million electricity customers in southeastern Michigan.

Temperatures in the Detroit area were expected to drop into the high teens Friday night and early Saturday morning.

“We’ve not had an ice storm in the last 50 years that has impacted our infrastructure like this,” said Trevor Lauer, president of DTE Electric. A December 2013 storm knocked out power to nearly 600,000 homes and businesses in Michigan.

DTE Energy Chair and Chief Executive Jerry Norcia said the utility has spent billions of dollars working to prepare the power grid for severe weather events, including trimming 5,000 to 6,000 miles (9,600 kilometers) of trees each year to prevent branches from falling onto power lines.

“Over the last five years, we’ve invested approximately $7 billion into our grid,” he said. “And over the next five years, we plan to put $9 billion of investment into our grid.”

“So, we have a lot in front of us to prepare for the future as these weather patterns continue to become more intense and more violent and create damage to our equipment,” Norcia said.

Service to about 90,000 Consumers Energy customers had been restored by late Friday, according to the utility. Consumers Energy supplies electricity to 1.8 million homes and businesses, largely outside of metropolitan Detroit.

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“It is certainly frustrating when there are an increasing number of extreme events that drive significant outages,” spokesman Brian Wheeler told The Associated Press in an email. He said the utility is carrying out a five-year, $5.4 billion plan to build a stronger, smarter power grid that reduces the number and length of outages.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she’s been in contact with leadership at both utilities.

“But this is the culmination of old infrastructure and climate events that are happening with greater ferocity and greater frequency,” said Whitmer, a Democrat. “It is frustrating that we are here again. I know that residents are frustrated. I know they’re making progress. But we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got accountability here and that we can move faster as these climate events happen more and more often.”

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To Benjamin Saltsman of Bloomfield Township, northwest of Detroit, outages of this kind no longer are a surprise. They’re almost expected: Saltsman said he usually loses power about twice a year.

Electricity at Saltsman’s home went out about 5:45 a.m. Thursday. It was still out Friday afternoon. Saltsman said he rented the last portable generator available at a local home supply store and is using it to run one of two furnaces in his home as well as the refrigerator.

“I’ve been complaining to DTE and Michigan’s power commission about this for a long time,” Saltsman said. “I think, really, the power lines belong underground. We keep hearing it’s prohibitively expensive. But at the same time, I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve installed generators. They are really shifting the burden on the homeowner.”

Calling DTE Energy provides no relief, according to Angela Marin, 73, of Novi. The power at Marin’s condominium northwest of Detroit has been out since Wednesday. She packed up about nine bags of food and took it to a relative’s home.

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“I go on the app and it says, ‘We know your power’s out and it will be back on Sunday,’” she said. “That’s like four days! I don’t know if the pipes are going to freeze. It’s just awful. It happens constantly.”

Anita Hoffman Ehrenfried fared better than many others. The electricity in her Bloomfield Township condo went out about 1 a.m. Wednesday, but was back on by the middle of that afternoon. She did spend time in her car warming up and charging her cellphone.

“This was the most excited I’ve ever been with DTE,” she said of her short restoration time.

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Associated Press writers Ed White in Detroit, Joey Cappelletti in Ferndale, Michigan, and Kathleen Foody in Chicago contributed to this story.