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Detroit Handles Blackout Smoothly, Revs Up Again

The city is proud and relieved that two nights in the dark didn't result in civil disturbances or looting. Most of the region's power is back.

August 17, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — As the Motor City got rolling again after two long, blacked-out nights, residents and leaders of this much-maligned metropolis took a minute to pat themselves on the back.

"Everyone was bracing for the worst," Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick said Saturday, referring to predictions that the blackouts might cause looting and other civil disturbances in Detroit. "It was never going to happen, and we should take this message around the country."

The city, he said, proved itself to be a model for the nation.

With electrical power almost fully restored throughout southeastern Michigan, scores of auto workers headed back to local steel and stamping plants for weekend shifts, and day-trippers turned out in droves for the delayed opening of the Michigan State Fair on the city's outskirts

Civic leaders and ordinary citizens alike appeared proud and relieved that Detroit hadn't suffered any incidents that might have recalled its disastrous 1967 riots or the '80s arson sprees. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said she was pleased "that nobody has taken advantage of this situation to loot or to profiteer."

Detroit and other parts of southeastern Michigan lagged behind New York City, Cleveland and other major cities in getting the juice back on. But by early afternoon, the Ford Motor Co. had announced it would resume limited production at some of its southeastern Michigan stamping plants, and other manufacturing businesses were calling weekend crews back to work.

Still, many traffic lights were spotty throughout metropolitan Detroit, and civic and energy officials warned that it might be necessary to impose two-hour rolling blackouts if power consumption was not reduced below normal summertime levels. As of 7 p.m., no blackouts had occurred and a passing thunderstorm had brought cooler weather to the region.

In addition to asking residents to lower their air conditioners and keep their washers and dryers turned off, regional officials urged people to conserve water and to continue to boil all drinking and cooking water through at least Wednesday. In Detroit, inspectors were to begin fanning out to see that restaurants and other food-related businesses were disposing of spoiled comestibles.

Detroit officials said there had been a record number of emergency medical service runs since the blackout began, mostly in response to elderly people who were having trouble breathing and required oxygen treatment.

At a Saturday morning news conference, Mayor Kilpatrick urged Detroiters to conserve power by spending the weekend outdoors. "Get out of your home, go play, go have fun, because we can't have everybody overloading the system as it comes back," he said.

Many residents appeared to be taking the mayor's advice to heart. On a hot, muggy Midwestern summer day, thousands of southeast Michiganders took to local parks and the annual state fair, the opening of which had been postponed Friday. Many others crowded the sidewalks along Woodward Avenue to watch the Dream Cruise, a vintage-car parade along a stretch of the main boulevard that connects downtown Detroit to its northern suburbs.

Detroit's turnaround between Friday and Saturday was dramatic. As night fell Friday, several hundred thousand people were still without power throughout southeastern Michigan. Earlier in the day, fights had broken out at a number of gas stations as people waited in line up to three hours to fill their tanks.

At the Pontchartrain Hotel in downtown Detroit, a guest fumed when she was told that the hotel's restaurant was closed and that the water wasn't working so there was no way to take a shower or flush the toilets. "That's not sanitary!" she said.

In impoverished southwest Detroit, residents sat late Friday on their porches in pitch darkness, chatting, listening to portable radios and trying to keep cool. Some expressed frustration and annoyance that their neighborhood was still without power while the lights were back on in other parts of the city and in a number of Detroit suburbs.

"We're always last," said Elaine Longmire as she sat with a small group of friends and neighbors under a massive chestnut tree, listening to R&B music booming from a parked car's stereo. "We're the wrong color," said Wallace Johnson, who is African American.

Some of those who had to work Saturday found post-blackout conditions challenging.

Kenrick F. Donnor spent the morning trying to drum up customers at Big's Hand Car Wash, on Detroit's west side. Business was already tough enough, he said, adding that it wouldn't be easy for him to comply with the weekend water-conservation measures and still make money.

"This is how we feed our families, this is how we pay the light bill," Donnor said.

Weekend traffic also was down at the Motown Museum in the city's New Center district. Anthony Robinson, the museum's public relations manager, said that in peak summer season many large families holding reunions will schedule side trips to the museum, which commemorates the legendary pop-record hit factory.

This weekend only two were coming.

But the Detroit native thought that his hometown had handled the power crisis well, with a different attitude than in times past.

Part of the reason, he thought, was that no one knew what had caused the blackout.

"That made everybody cautious," Robinson said, "and I think when citizens are cautious they're more apt to stick together than go off on their own way."

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