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The Dead of Winter, Continued

Winter continues to take its toll on poor families in Detroit, forcing desperate actions and risky choices onto those least equipped to bear the brunt of subzero temperatures and pounding snowfalls. As I've said before, if it's not the cold that kills you, then it's the very tools used to stay ahead of the cold, the cheap electric blankets or treacherous space heaters or jury-rigged power boxes.

In January, for instance, two elderly brothers and a 58-year-old woman died in house fire believed to have started as a result of a space heater. An 81-year-old man died and his 41-year-old son was left in critical condition in February after a fire erupted at their home, which they were trying to heat with space heaters and an over. Now, three children are dead, two others are in critical condition and four others barely escaped alive, after a blaze ravaged their west side home on Tuesday -- not long after their mother had left the house to go buy space heaters.

The deaths have whipped up intense passions among some of Detroit's most outspoken grassroots leaders, who say the tragedies have occurred largely because local utility giant DTE callously severs, or refuses to restore, electricity and gas service to poor residents during the hard winter months. One group, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, called for a protest today at DTE headquarters in downtown Detroit.

“DTE must turn on service for everyone, establish a moratorium on shut-offs, and develop affordable service plans for low-income people," MWRO president Marian Kramer was quoted as saying last month. "For over 10 years, MWRO has attended the funerals of seniors, mothers, babies and other poor people after they died while trying to stay warm in their homes.”

On the flip side, DTE, which touts its assistance programs for low-income customers as examples of its efforts to prevent tragic service interruptions, denies any responsibility for the deaths. And, at least in the case of Tuesday's blaze, the company is suggesting that jury-rigged attempts to stay ahead of the shutoffs may have played a role in the fire...

Scott Simons, DTE spokesman, said a previous resident had DTE cut off services to the home Dec. 11. No one had asked for it to be restored since then, he said.

Simons said the incident was a clear case of utility theft: DTE workers found the cut locks from the electric meter box on the ground outside of the burned home Wednesday morning.

Look, I don't doubt that there are many at DTE who want to work better with poor customers to stem horrible accidents like these fires. And I get that the company is in business to make a profit, not to give away gas and heat. But even in a down economy DTE clocked more than $2 billion in revenue last year, while losing about $100 million due to power thefts.

And while I get that losses in business aren't cool, losing human beings is far more unacceptable. And right now, that's what's happening. Our people are dying out there — our children, our elderly, our disabled.

So DTE needs to do a whole lot more to help prevent these deaths. And, yes, in the face of winters like ours, that includes restoring service even to those who can afford it the least (or not all) -- because no one should have to pay with his or her life.

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