In the wake of December’s infamous power outage, many Lansing Board of Water and Light customers are still voicing concerns about their local utility company.
“They made all these promises and released all these plans [after the outage],” said Lansing Township resident Jonathan Knolle. “But I don’t think it will be any better during the next crisis.”
With a Feb 16 outage in the East Lansing area, followed by additional blackouts in various parts of Lansing on Feb 20, others seem to be sharing this doubt.
“People I talk to feel concerned that we might have to go through the same thing all over again if BWL doesn’t radically shape up its management and technology,” said Alice Dreger, a professor at Northwestern University who has recently become a leader of East Lansing’s activists on the issue.
“I know BWL took a really long time to restore power during the last outage [in December], so I was kind of worried that it would take them overnight or maybe even longer,” said Michigan State University student Chelsea Little, who’s street lost power for more than two hours on Feb 16.
The December outage, caused by a massive ice storm that hit the area shortly before Christmas, caused major blackouts throughout mid-Michigan. In the Lansing area, 40,000 BWL customers were without power, many for up to 10 days according to a review conducted by the company. Some citizens report outages of 12 days or more, however.
“My power was out for a week straight,” said Lansing Township resident Allison Seuss. “After getting our generator stolen, we gave up and packed up the kids and got a hotel room. It was ridiculous. Our next door neighbors had to do the same thing.”
BWL offered outage credits of $25 for customers that lost power for over 120 hours(five days), adding an additional $5 for each day after that. Little says the compensation is not enough.
“My last electric bill was $230 – $25 isn’t even making a dent in that,” she said. “They ought to have paid for the gas I used to drive from my parents’ house and back, and for the food I had to trash.”
According to BWL, the two major problems during the ice storm were power restoration times and communication issues.
“When they talk about ‘communication problems,’ this is code in part for a failed computer system,” said Dreger. “They were supposed to test the system and put the patches in months before this. They never did.”
Winter conditions elevate dangers
Snowfall has been double the norm in many parts of Michigan, and temperatures are expected to hit more record lows this week. With one of the harshest winters in decades still plaguing the country, another long-term outage could be devastating.
“We learned from this that people don’t want to leave their houses when the power goes out,” said Dreger. “Staying put creates all sorts of dangers when the weather is very cold. You have to use more dangerous forms of heat and light, like generators that can cause poisoning and fires and candles that can lead to house fires.”
According to Weather Channel forecasts, the area will not be seeing a significant warm until at least March 17, with temperatures dipping back into single digits periodically throughout the next few weeks.
“It keeps me up at night sometimes, worrying that we could lose power and that the heat would turn off,” said Seuss. “When I work late, my boys are here alone.”
Looking forward, BWL has promised to hire more workers, adding additional tree trimming crews, developing online outage maps and improving communications. BWL has hired Lansing public relations firm Martin Waymire to help develop a crisis communications plan.
It will take time to see if the company follows through, and what effect these changes will have on their customers’ perceptions.
“Most people want BWL to remain ‘our hometown power company,’” said Dreger. “But we also now recognize that having electricity is a matter of public safety. So just like we want to know our police and fire departments are fully operational in emergencies, we want to know BWL will be.”
The question now is whether BWL has learned from its mistakes, and if it will be ready when the next emergency hits.
“You know, what happens the next time there’s a big storm?” said Knolle.
If you are a LBWL customer and are experiencing an outage, call 877-295-5001.
To claim an outage credit, visit this BWL site.
By Brooke Kansier