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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

Power outages could continue for days for some Michigan residents

Consumers Energy workers in Kalamazoo guiding a new utility pole being hoisted by a truck. The old pole in the background is cracked.
Courtesy of Consumers Energy
A Consumers Energy crew worked to repair a damaged utility pole in Kalamazoo Tuesday. The company had more than 150,000 customers without power after severe thunderstorms on Monday.

Hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents woke up Wednesday to another morning without power and, for some, the lights could be off for days to come.

Severe thunderstorms with wind gusts of over 70 miles per hour knocked down trees and utility poles, bringing down thousands of power lines across the lower half of the state's Lower Peninsula.

DTE Energy serves southeast Michigan and the Thumb region. As of Wednesday morning, the company had more than 210,000 customers without electricity. In an interview with Michigan Radio's Morning Edition, DTE Vice President of Distribution Operations Joe Musallam said much of the damage was caused by whole trees falling, not just branches.

"[T]rees outside of our right of way ... falling into power lines, so if you have a tree 60, 70 feet away, that's 80 or 90-feet tall and it takes a bad fall. These are trees that we normally wouldn't trim because they might be in the front of a customer's yard, usually not offering any threat to the power line," Musallam said.

Consumers Energy's service area includes most of northern, west, and mid-Michigan. The company had more than 50,000 customers without electricity on Wednesday morning. By that time, Consumers said it had restored power for more than 100,000.

A dangerous aftermath

In DTE's territory, more than 3,300 lines came down, according to Musallam. In Monroe, a 14-year-old girl died after holding a live wire she thought was a stick. In Warren, authorities say an 8-year-old boy suffered severe burns while trying to swing on a downed line.

"Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the 14-year-old girl," Musallam said. "What we want everybody to know ... I'm begging customers, stay away from downed power lines, assume that everything out there is energized. I had this conversation with my kids as the storm was coming in, stay a school-bus length away [from a downed line]. That's greater than 20 feet. Don't touch any type of metal fencing. Try to keep that distance and then come get your parents."

The restoration timeline

Musallam said about half of DTE customers could expect to have power by Wednesday night and 80 percent on Thursday. But the wait will be longer for some.

"We'd like to have everybody back by Friday. I know that seems like a long time, and I know it's very difficult right now with a lot of people are working from home still. Kids are going to school and they may not be able to. And that puts a lot of pressure [on customers]," he said.

"We're going to do everything we can to try to get most everybody back Friday. Based on the amount of damage, it's possible we could have some of the smaller outages trailing into Saturday."

Consumers Energy spokesman Josh Paciorek told Michigan Radio Consumers' goal was to finish restoring power to everyone by the end of the day Thursday.

"Our crews are going to be working around the clock. The hardest hit areas are the areas that we still need to clean up. There are still downed wires out there. There are still trees and other debris that's come down that is in our way," Paciorek said.

Possible credits

Under specific circumstances utility customers are entitled to credits after outages. Both Consumers and DTE have pages online where you can read the criteria and apply for a credit. You can see the Consumers outage credit page here and the DTE page here.

Future of the grid

Last summer, Michigan had a series of storms that knocked out power to about a million households. Climate change is expected to continue to make storms more frequent and more severe in Michigan. In discussions of outages and the response to them, DTE and Consumers frequently mention increased tree trimming and hardening the grid by adding stronger equipment. But is there any serious discussion of moving to more underground lines, especially in urban areas and large suburbs?

Musallam said DTE has been a "leader in undergrounding" for 20-30 years noting that newly built homes in the company's service area get underground wiring. But widespread underground lines for existing homes aren't coming any time soon. Still, Musallam said some projects may get done.

"As neighborhoods are working through, maybe they're having new road construction, maybe they're having new things coming and being built, and there's an opportunity for us to be able to keep the cost low and be able to run those lines ... as the roads are torn up or things like that," he said. "We're beginning to work with our wonderful municipalities throughout the Southeast Michigan area to try to make some of those things a reality."

Consumers is also more focused on working with the existing grid.

"The thinking a long time ago was that undergrounding lines would be too expensive and take too much time. But with technology improving, costs are starting to come down. And it is something that that we can look at on a case by case basis," Pacoriek said. "But it's going to require a careful approach. It's going to require studying it. It's not going to solve all of our problems. But we do know that lines that are underground tend to see less frequent power outages. So it's something that we'll look at."

Editor's notes: DTE Energy and Consumers Energy are corporate sponsors of Michigan Radio. Quotes in this story were edited for length and clarity. You can listen to more comments in the interview near the top of this page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Lauren Talley is Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition producer. She produces and edits studio interviews and feature stories, and helps manage the “Mornings in Michigan” series. Lauren also serves as the lead substitute host for Morning Edition.
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