Friday, September 09, 2011

Detroit Power Failures Close Schools, Main Library and Prompts Outrage

September 9, 2011

Power failures prompt outrage

Residents losing patience with aging system’s problems

The Detroit News

Detroit— After power failures Thursday zapped the Detroit Public Schools and shuttered the Detroit Institute of Arts and the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, simmering anger resurfaced toward the city's public lighting system amid fears it is on the brink of collapse.

Separate incidents contributed to Thursday's woes, as a power pole snapped in west Detroit, closing four schools, and a substation malfunction near Midtown took out electricity to public buildings in that area, including dozens of schools. That prompted DPS to close the remainder of its 130 buildings early on just the third day of the new school year.

DPS said Thursday night that it would decide today whether to hold classes.

That the power failed again is no surprise. A 24-hour outage darkened many of downtown's public buildings during a hot spell in June. Residents complain that street lights and traffic signals routinely don't work. And if the clouds unload, watch out.

"You know when you get a good rain it may go out," said Shawn Crump, a business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58, which represents about 25 electricians in the Detroit Public Lighting Department.

"Really, there's a need for infrastructure repairs. Anything short of that is a Band-Aid. Nothing can be fixed short of infrastructure upgrades and putting (in) enough people to maintain the system."

The city public lighting department is responsible for providing electricity to 900 federal, state and local public buildings, as well as to nearly half of the city's 85,000 streetlights. Yet the city's own audit of the department admits the aging system is "inadequate" and needs a $300 million infusion.

Thursday, the culprit was "splicing," where water got into the lines, said Chris Brown, the city's chief operations officer. A feeder line at a power substation near Wayne State University went out Thursday morning and a second line at that station failed shortly thereafter, he said.

That caused power to go down about 12:30 p.m.; most power was restored by 4 p.m. It's similar to what caused the power outage about six months ago, he said.

"The grid is old. There's no doubt about that," Brown said. "We need substantial capital expenses to put back into it."

For a city struggling to pay its employees, the money isn't there. And that may mean power failures are more frequent, not less, officials acknowledged.

"It's scary," said Andrena Sasser, 24, who has lived on Van Dyke in the West Village for four years. The street lights there haven't worked for weeks and, in some cases, months, she said.

"You can't see anything, and you never know who's out there," Sasser said. "If my porch light's on, it's better than nothing, but at night when I'm coming home or leaving, it's not good. Why have these lights been out for so long? I don't understand it."

The city has struggled for more than a decade to keep the city's 85,000 streetlights on. With so many lights out, many are concerned about crime.

"I've been here for seven months and the streetlights haven't been on in all this time," said Norm Williams, 51, who lives near the corner of Van Dyke and Agnes. "It gets really dark at night. You can't see."

Poor timing for schools

For the school district, the disruption comes at a bad time. Power outages caused four school closures on Tuesday, the first day of classes, and two more on Wednesday.

Although the outages Thursday hit two dozen schools, power at others was spotty, said Steve Wasko, district spokesman.

"Honestly, it comes and goes. Some come back on, go off again, some partial, some low voltage, a mixed bag," Wasko said.

The district said in a statement Thursday evening that power was back at all schools except Gardner Elementary. Students there will be moved to Mae C. Jemison school today.

DPS took the whole system down, even though most schools were unaffected, a decision that upset some parents who rushed to pick up their children early on Thursday afternoon.

"I don't understand this. I think it's a big inconvenience," parent Sherie Walker said outside Chrysler Elementary School, where she was picking up her son. She could see the lights working inside.

"I work in Farmington Hills and they told me to come pick him up in an hour, so I did 90 on two wheels to get here."

DPS officials said the power failures are another hurdle for a district struggling to get students to school the first week of classes. Tuesday, just 55 percent of eligible children attended the first day of school.

"There's never a good time for students to have to miss school, but having to lose valuable time at the beginning of the year, at the very moment that we are working so hard to tell parents to focus on attendance, is challenging for us," Wasko said.

Separate systems

The future of the city's 100-year-old electrical system has been debated for decades and DTE has been in talks about privatizing the system. Talks have not moved past where they were in June, DTE spokesman Alejandro Bopido Memba said Thursday.

There are two power grids in the city. One, run by the lighting department, supplies electricity to the street lights, traffic signals and public buildings.

The other is DTE's system that serves residential and commercial customers. When the public system goes down, homes and businesses are not affected.

Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown, who is on a personal trip to Jerusalem, has frequently criticized the lighting department. Reached Thursday, Brown said lighting is the city's top public safety issue, and that he will address the issue when he returns to Detroit next week.

"Regardless if it was the major cause of today's outage, it still does not negate the fact the infrastructure is crumbling," Brown said. "If not today, then it will be another inappropriate time. It's going to have a devastating effect on the city. …

"I've been very vocal about that's a business we need to get out of."

For Nicholas Burns, an 8-year-old at Chrysler Elementary School, forced to go home early Thursday afternoon, the power failure hindered his education.

"I missed music today," he said. "I'd rather be inside learning."

(313) 222-2563

The Associated Press and Staff Writers George Hunter and Santiago Esparza contributed.

No comments: