No, Detroit’s EM didn’t shut off power to flex muscle

spiritofdetroitOpponents of an emergency manager in Detroit have a new conspiracy: EM Kevyn Orr was part of a right-wing scheme to shut down power to Detroit’s courts, government buildings, museums and traffic lights last week.

His motive? To show Detroiters who really has power.

The conspiracy is making rounds on social networking sites, fueling anti-EM sentiments and spreading fear that Detroit is at the whim of a state-appointed zealot.

“If you ever had any doubt that Michigan has been taken over by a group of dangerous, radical extremists, what happened in Detroit on September 11th, 2013 should be enough to wake you up,” wrote Randa Morris for Addicting Info, one of at least a dozen sites to suggest a sinister conspiracy.

“This is what power out of control looks like.”

Thing is, the power outage was nothing unusual – and not at all sinister. When the weather is sizzling hot, the city’s brittle, outdated system gets overwhelmed because of extra air-conditioner use. It happened at least three times last summer, and customers endured longer outages.

This is what really happened last week: City officials warned courts, schools, municipal buildings and others to limit their use of electricity during two consecutive days of 95-plus temperatures to avoid a power outage.

On Sept. 11, the second day of the heat wave, one of the five main trunk lines supplying the city’s grid was down as part of routine maintenance by DTE.

“While that trunk line was down, it increased the load on the remaining four supplying the grid, causing another one to fail,” EM spokesman Bill Nowling told me.

Soon the city was down to three overwhelmed trunk lines, increasing the risk of a cascading blackout. To avoid an outage at hospitals and DPS schools, the city cut off power to other public institutions.

When word circulated that the city intentionally shut off power to courts and other important buildings, rumors swirled that the EM and his staff callously pulled the plug as a show of power, stranding people in elevators and causing security concerns at courts.

It’s a nice narrative, but the decision to turn off the power was a practical one – and it needed to be made at a moment’s notice. There was no time to issue another warning.
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In the media, we have a responsibility to be honest so people can make their own decisions. Fueling fears and resentment is a disservice to the more than 700,000 people who live in Detroit and want to know what’s really going on.

Want a real conspiracy involving the emergency manager? State and city officials repeatedly lied to the public about the prospect of landing an emergency manager. That was real.

The narrative about the power outage was not.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

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