The Historic Michigan Power Outage of March 2017

How March winds knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people across southern Michigan

By: Dave Bartkowiak Jr.

If you live or work in southern Michigan it's likely you were affected by a massive power outage in March 2017.

Maybe you didn't have power at your home, school or job. Maybe you're a business owner who had to scramble to get a generator working so you could keep customers happy and cash flowing. Or maybe you found yourself dodging traffic at intersections without working lights. It’s likely you fell into one or more of those categories.

You may not even have your power back yet as DTE Energy, which is one of two major electricity providers in the southern part of the state, continues working to restore power at the time of this writing

At its peak, DTE Energy reported more than 800,000 of its 2.1 million customers in southeast Michigan were without power. Consumers Energy, the second major provider in the state, said more than 360,000 of its customers were without electricity.

DTE said its the largest weather event in the company's history.

Wednesday, March 8 -- High winds sweep state

A high wind warning was in effect March 8 for most of the southern part of the state. Gusts of more than 60 miles per hour were reported in some areas. By 3 p.m., DTE Energy was reporting more than 400,000 customers without power as trees were toppled across the region. The west side of the state was getting hit, too, as Consumers Energy reported 175,000 outages by that time.

At first it seemed like this would be a normal blustery day. Trash was getting blown around. There was average wind damage to houses and buildings. But then things started to intensify and the high wind warning was validated. 

It appeared so many trees were going over effortlessly. DTE had an explanation for this: The unusually warm weather this winter made the ground softer than usual, causing trees to be uprooted more easily. And that was apparent as Local 4's Twitter lit up with tweets about the wind -- here are just a few:

Trees were falling on wires as the situation started to get really dangerous. Fires were sparking all over the region. By 11 p.m. Wednesday the Detroit Fire Department said firefighters had responded to 174 fire calls. On a normal day, the DFD said firefighters might battle eight structure fires. But that day they responded to 64 structure fires, 82 downed wires and 174 fire calls

Local 4's TIm Pamplin was out capturing those fires that night -- watch his report: 

Some of the fires proved to be quite devastating due to the dangerous electrically charged trees and buildings. A Local 4 photographer catpured this striking image of a power line burning and melting after the high winds blew over utility poles:

In Huron Township, a family lost their entire home after a downed power line ignited flames. Firefighters were helpless to stop the fire while DTE’s crews were busy elsewhere. 

Local 4's Nick Monacelli talked to the family -- you can watch his report here: 

Thursday, March 9 — Massive restoration effort underway

Remarkably, DTE Energy was able to start restoring some of the outages by the next morning. At 6 a.m. Thursday, the utility company was reporting more than 665,000 customers without power, down from the more than 800,000 the company reported hours before. Restoration crews were working around the clock, and more were being recruited from out of state.  Crews from Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, New York and Pennsylvania were in Michigan by Thursday morning to assist.

The number of outages started to dwindle throughout the day, but by 9 p.m. there were still more than 500,000 DTE customers in the dark.

  • 6 a.m. Thursday, March 9 -- 670,000 DTE customers without power

  • 7 a.m. Thursday, March 9 -- 670,00 DTE customers without power

  • 10 a.m. Thursday, March 9 -- 665,000 DTE customers without power

  • 2:45 p.m. Thursday, March 9 -- 630,000 DTE customers without power

  • 4 p.m. Thursday, March 9 -- 570,000 DTE customers without power

  • 9 p.m. Thursday, March 9 -- 515,000 DTE customers without power

"Given the sheer size of the (power outage), we expect the restoration to take multiple days," a DTE spokesman said Thursday.

A total 11,000 power lines were downed by the strong winds and falling trees. DTE Energy said 4,000 power lines were downed in its coverage area while Consumers Energy said 7,000 power lines were downed in its area. DTE declared it the largest weather event in its company history. 

Temperatures were dropping as winter gripped the state. The concern was thousands would be left without heat for a prolonged period of time. Warming centers started opening in nearly every community. 

Friday, March 10 — Day three without power

By Friday morning, DTE Energy was reporting 295,000 customers without power. Many schools and businesses were closed for the second-straight day. DTE was ready to offer a clearer picture of the restoration timeline, saying they expected 90 percent of the customers without power to have it back by Sunday night.

DTE President and CEO Jerry Norcia said the company's restoration team was fully mobilized and working around the clock. That included 1,500 line workers, 950 of which are from out of state. About 1,000 tree trimmers were at work, 250 of which were from out of state.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder went to one of the hardest hit areas of Wayne County, Dearborn Heights, to see the damage for himself. 

"Let's try to take care of each other. We have vulnerable people, particularly seniors, who may need assistance. Go check on your neighbors. Go check on your family members, make sure they're OK," Snyder said. 

The governor commended the linemen who were working 16-hour shifts. One of the most popular stories on ClickOnDetroit that day was a note from a worker's wife -- view here

Weekend arrives with 248,000 DTE customers still without power

Flashlights and candles were not going to cut it as temperatures plummeted to 20 degrees in southeast Michigan. People were seeking refuge in homes of family and friends who were fortunate enough to have electricity. Others were heading to shelters while those who could afford it were booking hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms became a huge demand in the area. 

"I live right up the street in Mt. Clemens. I can't get a room in Mt. Clemens, Roseville, nowhere," Charlotte Lewis told Local 4’s Jermont Terry.

She was not alone. Many hotels didn’t have full power, just enough generator juice to keep the buildings open.

DTE crews were able to keep grinding away at the restoration. By Sunday evening there were just 70,000 customers without power.

Here's a look at the outage map from Saturday morning, followed by a restoration timeline from that weekend:

  • 7 a.m. Saturday, March 11 -- 243,00 DTE customers without power
  • 11 a.m. Saturday, March 11 -- 231,000 DTE customers without power
  • 4 p.m. Saturday, March 11 -- 178,000 DTE customers without power
  • 9 p.m. Saturday, March 11 -- 147,000 DTE customers without power
  • 8 a.m. Sunday, March 12 -- 98,000 DTE customers without power
  • Noon Sunday, March 12 -- 85,000 DTE customers without power
  • 6 p.m. Sunday, March 12 -- 70,000 DTE customers without power

Monday’s weather would not make finishing this hefty task any easier.

Monday, March 13 — Snow and ice arrive

About 2-6 inches of snow fell across southeast Michigan that Monday, and DTE’s restoration crews kept working through the wintry weather

"Regretfully, the snow and icy road conditions, coupled with complicated and time-consuming repairs, impeded restoration efforts on Monday," DTE said.

With 15,000 customers without power Monday night, the company would not be able to reach its goal of 100 percent restoration by Monday night.

Tuesday, March 14, — Thousands still without power

During a news conference Tuesday a DTE company spokeswoman said they were unhappy about not meeting their goal of 100 percent restoration by Monday night.

"We're not happy that we did not meet our goal to restore all of the storm customers at 11:30 p.m. (Monday). We did everything we could to make that happen," said Heather Rivard, DTE senior VP of distribution operations.

DTE did not offer an estimate for when those without power will get it back.

The company said Tuesday morning its biggest challenge continues to be the number of jobs with extensive damage.

"Our restoration process begins by isolating damage to restore as many customers as possible, and then returning to fix the real damage and small pockets of customers," a DTE statement read.

Meanwhile, Consumers Energy announced March 14, nearly a week after the wind storm, it was able to restore power to the 360,000 customers who were affected by the historic outage.

Consumers Energy said the wind storm was one of the most devastating in the company's 130-year history.

"From the wire guard, to the line clearing crew, to the call center representative, to the line worker laboring high off the ground, many employees involved in this restoration have positive stories to tell about interactions with many kind residents affected by the storm," said Patti Poppe, Consumers Energy’s president and CEO. "These stories help explain why it is so rewarding to serve and fulfill our promises to our customers and we thank them for their patience."

Consumers said 360,000 of its customers were affected as 7,900 wires were taken down by the high winds. More than 1,000 poles also were broken by the wind, Consumers said.

"We have been working through the night and making steady progress," said Guy Packard, vice president of energy operations at Consumers Energy.

Wednesday, March 15 — A week later, some still without power

As of this writing, DTE Energy was reporting less than 2,000 customers without power in southeaster Michigan. At this point, the company hasn’t declared 100 percent restoration.

Looking back, the hardest hit areas in southeast Michigan were Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties. There were 253,000 customers without power March 9 in Wayne County alone.

It’s remarkable the workers were able to restore power to so many in just a week when you realize how widespread the outage was. The men and women who were out in the elements need to be thanked. 

Michigan among worst states for power outages

In 2016 there were 192 reported power outages in the state of Michigan. 

That puts the state at No. 4 on the list of most power outages, according to Eaton's 2016 Blackout and Power Outage Tracker report. Michigan is behind only California, New York and Texas when it comes to power outages. Those are three of the most populated states in the country. 

With this month's massive and historic outage caused by high winds, it's not hard to believe this data. 

Here is the data from Eaton:

When it comes to outages caused by weather, Michigan is even worse, according to Eaton's data:

What's next for DTE, Consumers Energy?

That's some incriminating data when the discussion turns to Michigan's power infrastructure. It's unclear what the next steps will be for both DTE and Consumers Energy -- will this mean more tree trimming? That's likely the only solution for now. However, it has been a contentious one -- watch this Local 4 Defenders report from 2015.

The Michigan Public Service Commission, which is responsible for electric and steam utility regulation in the state, just approved rate increases for DTE and Consumers Energy. Commission Chairman Sally Talberg reportedly said replacing infrastructure is a top priority of the MPSC. She said the Commission order "allocates $40 million to deploy innovative technology that provides real-time information to optimize the operation of the electric system and has the potential to improve reliability and efficiency, while lowering future operating costs."

OK -- It's still unclear how we can avoid a wind storm knocking out power across the state. Burying the lines underground doesn't appear to be in the conversation. Michigan Administrative Code 460.511 states a "real estate developer or customer shall make a contribution in aid of construction to the utility in an amount equal to the estimated difference in cost between overhead and underground facilities." Who has the money for that? 

For now, let's hope we don't get another wind storm like the one in March 2017.

You can get credit -- money for your outage inconvenience 

Meanwhile, make sure you know if you qualify for credit from DTE or Consumers Energy.