Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Detroit Fires Caused by Corporate Profits, Municipal Cutbacks Due to Debt Strangulation

Detroit Fires Caused by Corporate Profits, Municipal Cutbacks Due to Debt Strangulation

85 homes destroyed not by ‘natural disaster’ but decaying capitalism

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A series of 85 fires struck several Detroit neighborhoods on both the east and west sides on September 7. The city was hit that day by high winds of up to 50 miles per hour that blew down power lines and sparked fires that spread rapidly.

Initial reports from the corporate media and DTE Energy, which supplies power to the bulk of homes throughout the city, indicated that the blazes were the result of arson and the theft of power service by Detroit residents. However, a Detroit Fire Department official soon claimed that the fires directly emanated from the failure of DTE Energy to respond to calls about downed lines days before the fires rendered hundreds homeless throughout the city.

Once the fires began the city of Detroit emergency responders were incapable of adequately addressing the crisis. As a result of the lay-offs of municipal employees and the trimming down of services to the bare minimum, 911 operators did not answer calls and some were reported to have hung up on residents.

In addition, the fire department has refused to hire the necessary personnel due to the draconian budget cuts implemented by the corporate-oriented administration of Dave Bing as well as the majority bloc within the City Council. Both elected bodies have put the profits of the corporations and the banks before the well-being and safety of the people who live in Detroit.

DTE Energy has also eliminated field offices and is accused by residents of the affected neighborhoods of not responding to distress calls about downed power lines days prior to the September 7 fires. Mary Hargrave, whose mother lives on one of the most devastated streets on the city’s eastside said that she noticed a transformer that was sparking earlier in the day but calls to the power giant received no response.

Hargrave said that “This is ridiculous. You can call them and they don’t do anything, but if you have a shutoff notice they’re right there.” (Detroit News, September 8)

Other family members J.T. and Shirley Hargrave said that their home on East Robinwood near Van Dyke was badly damaged in the fires that destroyed 20 homes in the area. The family said that they had made numerous calls to DTE Energy since Friday, September 3 to come out and check on power surges, flickering lights and electrical humming sounds. (Detroit Free Press, September 9)

Another family member Michelle Denton confirmed that the calls were made over a period of days but no action was taken by DTE Energy. A spokesman for the power and natural gas supplier, Scott Simons, said on September 8 that DTE Energy had responded to the calls but when the media investigated the corporation’s claim it found out that they had not repaired the transformer in question but another one a half-block north.

Residents in the eastside neighborhood traced the 20 fires to a damaged power line connected to the transformer reported on by the Hargrove household.

Once the blazes began to rage out of control, the fire department was unable to make an adequate response. Assistance was requested from neighboring departments located in suburban communities.

The fire department has about 500 fighters assigned to cover a city the size of Detroit. There are at least 20 fewer firefighters than last year and only 236 were on duty September 7.

Dan McNamara, the president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, said that his union members responded the best they could under the circumstances. McNamara said that the union has repeatedly warned the Bing administration that the city needs an additional 300 firefighters to keep 65 companies open and operational.

On September 7 only 58 companies were open. This represents a decline of 13 companies since 2005.

McNamara said that “Our firefighters put everything out there. Firefighters on their day off came to assist on scene, but while fires were going on, more calls came in, and we weren’t able to respond.” (Associated Press, September 11)

Despite calls for 911 operators, it took some fire trucks up to 90 minutes to respond to the alarms. Residents were seen in some neighborhoods using water hoses in futile attempts to put out the flames.

Adding to the lack of firefighting personnel in Detroit resulting from the budget cuts, there were problems with faulty equipment and street hydrants that malfunctioned. Kevin Mays, a city resident whose two homes and vehicles were burned, said of the situation in Detroit that “The city does what it can, but we’ve got so many problems, who knows how long it will be—if it ever gets right again.” (Associated Press, September 11)

Capitalist Crisis At Root of Municipal Problems

The city of Detroit has been described as being at the epicenter of the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression. Over several decades hundreds of thousands of jobs, small businesses, factories and schools have been lost.

As a result of the high rate of unemployment and predatory lending by financial institutions, there are tens of thousands of vacant homes, businesses, factories and other structures throughout the city. Detroit officials say that the budget deficit is in excess of $300 million and growing.

In response to the deficits in both the city government and the public school system, thousands of educational and municipal jobs have been eliminated. Since the onslaught of the most recent economic crisis beginning in late 2007, the conditions have become far worse.

DTE Energy is a leading boss in the region and has contributed significantly to the crisis. The power and natural gas giant has over $20 billion in assets yet it has closed neighborhood field offices and cutback on maintenance to power lines that are damaged throughout the metropolitan area.

This lack of maintenance poses an added potential for disaster as a result of the proliferation of vacant and blighted structures throughout neighborhoods and commercial streets. Also DTE Energy admits that during the course of a year the company terminates essential electrical and heating services to over 100,000 households.

DTE Energy has been blamed for the deaths of at least 12 people since 2009 due to the shutting off of utility services to households. The company claims that the deaths are the result of energy theft by people whose services have been terminated.

The Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs challenged both DTE Energy and Michigan Gov. Granholm during 2009 to impose a halt to service terminations based upon the inability of hundreds of thousands to pay the high rates as well as the overall safety threats that have already resulted in numerous deaths and the recent destruction of 85 homes in various neighborhoods throughout the city.

In July of 2009, four members of the Reed-Owens family, including three children, died because their electricity was shut-off by DTE Energy despite the fact that the household was in bankruptcy which was supposed to prevent the termination of services. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition launched a campaign demanding a halt to the shutoffs.

Top level executives of DTE Energy immediately called for a meeting with the Moratorium NOW! Coalition. During the meeting, Coalition members demanded a halt to the shutoffs, which the corporation refused to accept.

Later in August-September 2009, Moratorium NOW! organized the residents of the Highland Towers apartments whose electrical service was terminated due to the negligence of the landlords. DTE Energy was forced to turn the power back on and pay for the re-location of the residents, yet the apartment building remained abandoned for a year.

Just recently, the abandoned Highland Towers caught fire destroying the structure which could have easily been saved and remained occupied. However, the failure of municipal governments, the state legislators and the Governor’s office to stand up to the banks, corporations and landlords has resulted in further abandonment and blight in Detroit and throughout the state of Michigan.

The recent fires in Detroit, which Mayor Bing attributed to a “natural disaster,” stem directly from corporate control and the strangulation of the banks which have drained the city’s resources through foreclosures of homes and debt-service payments. It was also revealed in a press conference by the Mayor on September 8 that he had served for two decades on the board of DTE Energy which could very well be a factor in his refusal to criticize the corporation for its devastating policies in the city.

Bing, after being questioned about his relationship with DTE Energy, stormed out of the press conference. His behavior is indicative of the bankrupt corporate policies that he is seeking to impose on the people in Detroit.

The only short-term solution to the crisis in Detroit and other cities is an immediate moratorium on foreclosures, evictions and utility shutoffs as well as a freezing of debt-service payments to the banks.

These problems that are plaguing urban areas across the country are further manifestations of the crisis in capitalism. The utility suppliers and the banks must be brought under the control of the people in order to re-direct the profits and other resources to resolve the monumental problems of social decay and displacement.

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