Water gushes in thousands of vacant buildings as Detroit shuts off occupied homes

Ice at Detroit City HS
Ice accumulated at Detroit City High School during the winter after the city failed to turn off running water.

A long-abandoned factory floor on Detroit’s west side is 4 inches deep in gushing water. At the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which closed 12 years ago, water sprouts from a hole in the pavement like a fountain. And in numerous abandoned schools, water flows freely from broken pipes and floods classrooms and hallways.

Over the past year, we inspected more than 100 vacant homes, schools, libraries, churches, hospitals, factories and government buildings and found that roughly 20% still had running, leaking water. Even two vacant fire stations were flooded with water after thieves stole copper pipes.
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Water leaks at the vacant Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which closed 12 years ago.

As water gushes endlessly from thousands of abandoned buildings and houses, the city has shut off water to more than 15,000 delinquent homeowners and landlords under the order of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. The running water drives up water bills in a city where 38% of the population lives in poverty.

And although the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is already unable to keep pace with shutoffs at abandoned buildings, Orr plans to drastically reduce the department’s staff while paying up to $6 million to turn off water to delinquent customers.

RELATED: Protests over water shutoffs increase, drawing about 1,000 to downtown Detroit

Mayor Mike Duggan, who has no authority over the shutoffs, doesn’t like how the process went down.

“He is profoundly frustrated that he doesn’t have the authority over the water department and he hopes that will change soon,” mayoral spokesman John Roach said.
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Vacant school, by Dan Sommers III
Vacant school, by Dan Sommers III

Today, DWSD plans to announce an initiative, called Detroit Delivers, that will enable smart phone users to notify the city of running water in vacant buildings. The goal is to shut off the water within 48 hours, said Bill Johnson, spokesman for the DWSD.

“We understand there is running water out there, but we don’t always know where it is,” Johnson said. “So we are asking the public to use this technology to help us identify properties where water is running.”

Johnson said the department also is instructing crews to check abandoned buildings for water. It’s no easy task. The city has more than 80,000 abandoned structures.

Not everyone buys into the plan.

Dan Sommers III has alerted the department to flooding at several schools but the city failed to act until the media got involved.

“It is insulting at how they ignore those of us who call in to try to save them some money but are so persistent with the water shutoffs,” Sommers said. “It’s sickening.”

Here is one of Sommers’ videos:


Here is another video of running water at an abandoned school  by Jason Feeny.


Duggan’s spokesman John Roach said the mayor was unhappy with the handling of the shutoffs.

“He has said that while he understands the need for people to pay for their water, the whole shut off process was poorly handled,” Roach said. “His feeling is that all of the payment assistance programs needed should have been in place and promoted well ahead of time and that there should have been a much more thorough public education effort made prior to shutting off people’s water.”
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This was an update of our original story on running water in December.

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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