Jan. 2 2014 12:00 AM

Customers converge to demand answers at BWL


The parade of citizens at the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s customer service center Friday afternoon was beyond even Norman Rockwell’s power to paint. They came in pajama bottoms, business suits, Obama T-shirts, fedoras, overalls, berets, red holiday coats with gold jingle bells and threadbare flannel under yellowish beards. With 40 or more people packed in the service window area and frequent spurts of overflow lining up outside the door, this impromptu town meeting had only one topic.

After almost a week without power, what the hell is going on?

Southside resident Pat Hartwick has cancer and heart trouble and lives on a Social security allowance under $900 a month. She and her three cats have been keeping warm by running a space heater off an extension cord from a neighbor’s house.

A branch tore the utility “stack” off the house onto the ground. That day, BWL staffers explained to hundreds of people, including Hartwick, that it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to get a contractor to fix it.

“How am I going to do it?” Hartwick said, her voice shaking. “I’ve got $1.25 in the bank. I’ve got a $500 deductible on the insurance policy for my house.”

Many homeowners had already cleared the messes on their property and demanded further information.

“The phone system sucks,” westside resident Mary Avery said. “They could have been better informing us of when we can get service. It’s been the same message for days.

I’d just like to know when we can go home.”

Avery was ready to put a strange Christmas behind her. Her kids converged from Grand Rapids, Buffalo and the Upper Peninsula for Christmas, ending up in a Red Roof Inn.

On the night of the ice storm, Avery, a volunteer for the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, drove from Detroit Metro Airport to escort a guest singer for the symphony pops concert. After three white-knuckle hours, she made it to her driveway in Lansing just as the lights went out.

“It was cold. I was underneath the blanket and my cell phone was going dead. The only number I knew was 1-800-Red-Roof.”

Travis, from the Potter Walsh neighborhood, had a lot of questions. “How many crews do they usually have and how many do they have now?” he asked. “And how come my neighborhood got prioritized last? It’s Friday.”

Travis stayed in his house for two days, then took his three kids (2, 7 and 10 years old) to stay with his in-laws in Charlotte.

“I paid a company to take the tree off. Can you at least come down and hook the line back up? They don’t answer the phone. The person I talked to in there threw her hands up in the air. It’s pretty pathetic.”

Mary Crow of Lansing lives on Brighton Drive near Waverly and Holmes roads.

“My husband and I are at our wits’ end.

It looks like a war zone. It’s really bad over there because there are so many big older trees. We had to get an electrician to do the house. I can’t get them on the phone so here I am.”

Pearl Decker, who lives near Coolidge Road and Stonewood Drive, near Frandor, reported a “doughnut hole” of several dark houses in her area, but didn’t find out when her power would come back. Her family has been staying at the Kellogg Center and just extended their stay until Monday.

“We went Chinese on Christmas,” she said. “We just keep going home, checking to see if the wreath is on the door.” She was unable to get any information on the phone. “There needs to be better communication.”

Dick Jensen of Lansing lives near Everett High School.

“I was getting ready to go to bed Saturday night, heard a bang, the lights went out, I looked at my cell phone and it was 10:06. Nothing but misery since.”

He started running a generator after two days.

“Gas isn’t cheap,” he said. He hoped for some information. A BWL staffer told him they were doing their best.

His fatalism bordered on cheerfulness. “I wasn’t going to complain. Plenty of people complain and it doesn’t do any good.”

A man poked his head in the door at the service center, looked at the line, said “Oh my God,” and walked out.

A pickup truck idled in the parking lot.

A gray-bearded man with a pair of crutches resting on the passenger seat wanted to know when his power would be back, but he hesitated about going in. “Someone said the line in there is pretty long,” he said. He turned the truck around and left.