Communities endure through record-breaking storms

Residents relate tales of struggle in wake of storms

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published August 20, 2021

 Tree limbs broken during powerful wind gusts caused damage and power outages across Farmington Hills, seen here, as well as the rest of metro Detroit.

Tree limbs broken during powerful wind gusts caused damage and power outages across Farmington Hills, seen here, as well as the rest of metro Detroit.

Photo provided by Gillian Pines, city of Farmington Hills


OAKLAND COUNTY — Ever since the massive storm of Aug. 11, 2014, Michiganders tend to hold their breath on that date, the memories of flooding, power outages and endless property damage still fresh in their minds.

Perhaps that’s why the cluster of storms that moved through metro Detroit two weeks ago on Aug. 11, 2021, seemed especially harsh. But the headaches were very real, and the inclement weather left hundreds of thousands in metro Detroit under water, out of power or both.

According to the National Weather Service’s Detroit/Pontiac branch, two rounds of storms hit southeast Michigan Aug. 11, the first in the afternoon and the second late that night and into the following morning. with wind gusts measured at up to 75 mph and between 3-5-inches of rain fell. Flash flood warnings, special marine warnings and several severe thunderstorm warnings were issued, along with the first-ever issuance of the National Weather Service’s new Destructive Severe Thunderstorm Warning, which is designed to better categorize storms with cloud-to-ground lightning, hail at least 2.75-inches in diameter and 80 mph winds.

In the dark
The numbers are startling, but the impact on residents was, somehow, even more profound.

DTE Energy said more than 600,000 households were left without power due to the Aug. 11 storm, more than a quarter of its service population. Consumers Energy, which serves a smaller set of households in metro Detroit, reported more than 200,000 outages. Those affected were without power for anywhere between one and five days as thousands of linemen worked around the clock to make repairs.

“The remaining storm outages are in some of the hardest hit communities with extensive damage to DTE lines and equipment,” DTE said in a statement on Aug. 16. “Crews are working as quickly and safely as possible to sort through damage and rebuild parts of the infrastructure.”

As of Aug. 19, more than a week after the original storm hit, close to 5,000 residents were still without power.

Rachel Klaus, of Royal Oak, had her power restored at close to midnight Aug. 14. The single mom of a 13-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son said she struggled during the week to keep up with her kids and her remote job without electricity.

“Trying to entertain a 13-year-old who has no technology,” Klaus said with a laugh. “In order to work, I had to run my generator to power my Wi-Fi modem, work laptop and two monitors. I sat in my basement office, in the dark, with just the glow of my monitors for lights. It worked, but was noisy and difficult. I hadn’t slept much because of the storms and no power, so I was exhausted. And I had to keep checking on the generator and make sure it had gas and was running smoothly.”

In Oak Park, where Marilyn Mack Pilchowski operates a not-for-profit bakery called Sweetbird Kitchen out of her home, orders went unfilled for days while she was out of power.

And that wasn’t even the worst of her troubles that week.

“On Aug. 8, Sunday, we had a tree fall and almost kill our neighbor’s nephew. It fell into their hot tub and took the pole down with it. He was sitting on the edge, but not in the water. He was scratched by the tree’s branches, but was otherwise OK,” Mack Pilchowski said. “That took out three poles and seven transformers. Power was restored Monday night, then the wind took it out again Wednesday at 10 p.m.”

More than an inconvenience
Active power lines on the ground are always the first priority for DTE linemen and municipal first responders, to keep residents safe from fires and deadly electrocutions. The utility advised customers in a prepared statement to never drive over a downed power line and to stay at least 20 feet from wires.

Other advice from DTE included turning off equipment indoors to avoid short-outs upon restoration and proper placement of generators — far away from the home to avoid dangerous exhaust fumes from getting into the house or potentially setting fire to the house itself.

That’s what happened in Bloomfield Hills around 1:30 p.m. Aug. 12, when public safety officers responded to the 100 block of Kirkwood Court on a report of a smoking generator. By the time officers arrived, the generator had caught fire, requiring 250-gallons of water to extinguish. The generator was placed next to the home, but luckily did not ignite the house. The unit itself was a total loss.

Bloomfield Township fire officials said they responded to numerous reports of activated carbon monoxide detectors following the storm due to residents improperly placing or operating their generator near the house.

Also on DTE’s list of outage tips was to keep refrigerators and freezers closed to preserve food, which could be kept cold an average of 12 hours in a non-working refrigerator and up to two days in a packed, non-working freezer.

But as many communities closed in on day four or five without electricity, many had no choice but to pitch their spoiled groceries.

In Rochester, a small dumpster was provided outside the fire station for residents to dispose of spoiled food. It was filled within a few hours, according to City Manager Blaine Wing.

“So instead of emptying it again and again, our public works team replaced it with two flat-bed trucks that could be easily dumped and would be ready to fill again,” Wing explained.

He credited the idea to a resident who had called two days after the storm asking for a place to drop off spoiled food. They promoted the service on social media, with a great response.

“Based on feedback and the amount of times we emptied the trucks, it was very useful for our residents. And I heard at least another community did the same thing a day or so later, based on a Facebook comment,” Wing added.

To credit or not to credit?
In an effort to also ease customers’ inconvenience, DTE reportedly had granted $100 credits to several residents impacted by the outage for an extended period of time.

Asked how the utility determined which customers were to receive a credit, DTE did not respond for comment before press time.

To that end, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced she would call on Consumers Energy and DTE Energy to voluntarily adopt automatic outage credits to affected customers in the future. The goal is to help residents recoup losses from wasted food, lost revenue for small businesses. alternative housing or lodging costs, and more. Currently, a customer needs to file with their utility to obtain an outage credit.

“The utility workers for Consumers Energy and DTE Energy are working hard to restore power, and I appreciate those who have worked tirelessly the last several days on behalf of the communities they serve, but these companies also need to work hard to restore trust with their customers,” Nessel said in a press release. “… We know that climate change is having a significant real impact, and a business-as-usual approach is no longer sufficient. That is why it’s imperative that our utility companies adapt to the changing climate and needs of their thousands of customers. Consumers Energy and DTE must do better than this.” 

Did you know…
According to the Citizens Utility Board, Michigan was ranked 13th worst in the nation for overall power outages following a catalyst event and ninth worst for outages at times without an event, according to metrics from 2018, reported in 2020.