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Detroit Lags in Midwest's Reboot

More than 1 million homes lack power as much of the region blinks back on.

August 16, 2003|Reed Johnson and Eric Slater | Times Staff Writers

DETROIT — Power winked back on Friday in many Midwestern cities struck by a massive outage, but much of this city remained without power as night fell, with more than 1 million households without electricity and officials urging residents to be patient another night.

"We are through the first 24 hours of this blackout with probably better results than any of us could have expected. But we are a long way from being out of the woods," said Wayne County prosecutor Mike Duggan.

Warning those who might break the law, he said, "Before you pick up a brick and throw it through a window, before you tip over a car, before you steal a TV, you've got to ask, 'Is this worth the next 10 years of my life?' "

The power failure that blacked out New York and Detroit also affected other cities in Michigan, including Lansing, the capital, as well as Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio. In all, 50 million customers across several states were affected.

In Cleveland, the failure of all four municipal pumps that draw water from Lake Erie prompted the Ohio National Guard to begin trucking in potable water early Friday. The pumps came to life again by midday, but Mayor Jane Campbell still advised boiling water for at least four minutes as a precaution. In Detroit, the pumps were working at partial power late in the day, but city officials advised residents to boil water there as well.

As most cities, including New York, had power restored, much of Detroit remained dark. DTE Energy, the area's main supplier, said it would take the rest of the weekend to restore electricity to the half of its 2.2 million customers still without it.

"We're the last to get power -- that's not right," said Detroit Police Officer Glen Woods. "It's coming on, though, slowly."

Without power, the city said, 90% of the area's gas stations were unable to pump, and lines stretched for more than a block at some of those that were open. Police took up positions at many of the stations to direct traffic and calm nerves as waits stretched to three hours or more in 90-degree heat.

One station on the east side of Interstate 75 was selling unleaded regular gasoline for $1.54 a gallon, while one on the other side of the freeway was charging 26 cents more. Word of such disparities -- as well as reports that some convenience stores were upping the price of bottled water -- prompted Michigan Atty. Gen. Mike Cox to call a news conference and pledge to prosecute price gougers.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, meanwhile, declared several counties in the southeastern corner of the state disaster areas and signed an executive order to help expedite the transfer of 1 million gallons of gasoline from the unaffected western part of the state to the Detroit area.

Detroit police reported 22 arrests for minor looting Thursday night and Friday morning, but they emphasized that the night was hardly more eventful than the average summer graveyard shift. Cleveland, Toledo and other Midwestern cities that lost power reported no unusual spikes in crime.

The outage caused not only a power blackout but something of a news blackout.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer managed to publish a 16-page paper Friday, the Detroit Free Press just eight pages.

Free Press reporters wrote their stories on laptop computers they charged using the cigarette-lighter outlets in company cars, then transferred their dispatches onto CD, Executive Editor Carole Leigh Hutton said. The CD was then inserted into the one computer in the newsroom with a working phone line and was e-mailed to editors who had rented a conference room in the suburb of Brighton, which did not lose power.

In Brighton, the editors designed the pages and e-mailed them to printing plants in Indianapolis, Toledo, Battle Creek, Mich., and Bowling Green, Ohio. The papers were then trucked back to Detroit.

"They got here a little late ... but not publishing wasn't an option," Hutton said. "The question was how were we going to do it. Well, we did it with laptops and candlelight. There was a neat incongruity there, using candles and laptops "

Hundreds of flights were canceled at Detroit International, Cleveland Hopkins and other Midwestern airports, in addition to those on the East Coast, though by evening many planes were taking off and landing.

In Detroit, a concert by beloved hometown rocker Ted Nugent was one of several canceled Friday night. But by dusk in Cleveland, the theater marquees were aglow along Playhouse Square, and the Cleveland Indian and Cleveland Brown games went on as scheduled. Residents wandered the streets and mingled with neighbors.

When the lights first went out, "we thought it was as bad as 9/11," said Peter Hood, 32, referring to the terrorist attacks of September 2001 as he loaded food trays for the needy at a Church of Christ on the city's east side. "But everyone was looking out for each other. It was fine. It was just dark."


Johnson reported from Cleveland and Detroit and Slater from Chicago.

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