On Thursday, February 23, a day of ice-glazed beauty, fallen trees, and downed power lines, Shoshannah Lenski posted on Nextdoor.com: “Hi, all, I’m your nearby neighbor and DTE employee. I know a huge number of you are experiencing power outages right now.”
Though her own family was also without electricity, she began to share information (“DTE has about 500,000 customers without power”) and advice (“Fallen trees and limbs can hide energized wires. Keep kids and pets in the house.”)
All weekend she stayed on her phone, posting updates and exchanging messages with about 120 agitated customers. Lenski tracked down the source of outages, sharing estimated repair timelines, and forwarding reports from people who couldn’t get through to DTE through other channels.
She’s grateful that no one asked her to move them to the head of the line for repair work. “I think people understand that it’s right for there to be a process,” she says. But when she learned that a couple couldn’t reach the generator in their garage because a downed power line was in the way, “I was able to escalate the situation and our crews were able to come out.”
She also heard about a couple in their seventies who were staring at their fourth day in a local hotel. They had been assured once that a DTE crew was on its way and had rushed home, only to wait in vain.
They were low on the list because their house was the only one on the street without power. Lenski was able to get a truck out the same day.
The wife, who doesn’t want her name used, remains frustrated with DTE. But, she says, “I will sing Shoshannah Lenski’s praise to the stars.”
Asked about the utility’s much-criticized response, Lenski defers to the company’s PR team. Spokesman Dave Akerly points out that the ice storm was “the worst in fifty years,” and Washtenaw County was hit especially hard. In this area alone, he emails, “more than 400 full-time DTE responders” and 100 contract crews worked night and day to restore power as weather permitted—the ice was followed by a heavy snowfall that brought down still more trees and lines.
Lenski looks up with a smile as I join her at Sweetwaters in Kerrytown. Her straight, shoulder-length brown hair makes her look younger than someone “rapidly approaching middle age,” as she puts it. She has the taut physique you’d expect from someone who turned a used treadmill into a walking desk that she uses during endless Zoom meetings.
As DTE’s director of gas operations, Lenski is responsible for 400 employees and an annual budget of $300 million. But she says it’s not unusual for someone at her level to shift to full-time crisis work during an emergency.
For most of 2020, she was the “incident commander” leading the gas division’s emergency response to Covid. “It was my hardest role at DTE by far—and also the one I’m most proud of,” she says. Her team had to make high-stakes decisions “about how to keep our employees safe while performing critical work to make sure … we didn’t have any issues delivering safe and reliable gas service.”
DTE brass got on top of the pandemic quickly, she says, eventually buying so many masks for its employees that it was able to donate some to hospitals and first responders. But concern about keeping vital systems going was so intense that she was given an emergency radio to carry. “Every time I looked at it, it kind of gave me the shivers,” she says. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to use it.”
The daughter of two MSU scientists, Lenski was active in an environmental club in high school. A Cornell grad summa cum laude, she worked overseas for businesses in sustainability efforts before moving to Ann Arbor, where she completed a master’s at the School of Environment and Sustainability in 2011.
She’s worked for DTE ever since, with promotions coming quickly. Although a self-defined “numbers person,” she sees her biggest strength as her ability to ask the “right questions” so she can take something that’s “technical and complicated and share it in a way that keeps all the essential information but isn’t overwhelming.” Being an acknowledged Type A personality hasn’t hurt.
In “normal” times, her job is stressful enough. She leads a team upgrading natural gas infrastructure. Many lines are 100 years old and leaky, so fixing them also contributes to DTE’s goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. As the big-picture person responsible for planning, compliance, and the amorphous “customer satisfaction,” she says, “I go from meeting to meeting.”
On weekends, she enjoys time with her husband and three kids, whose ages range from four to twelve. The family loves the outdoors and has a strong environmental ethic. Everyone is either a vegetarian or vegan, she and her husband bike and walk whenever they can, and they buy their clothes secondhand.
“Global warming is what keeps me up at night and makes me very scared about the future,” Lenski says. “But the only thing I can do is wake up every day and do what I can.”
Lenski says her own household pulled through the outage with a minimum of angst. “For the kids, in many ways, it’s a little bit of a fun adventure,” she says. “We bundled up and used flashlights. We were fine.”
She knows that many others weren’t. She reached out to her neighbors on Next-door, Lenski says, because “ultimately, people just want to be heard.”
Though she couldn’t “climb a pole” to restore their power, she says, she could provide “the human touch” to those whose homes were plunged into cold and darkness.
Why are we still describing women by how young they look, or if they’re in shape?
You should have nixed this whole part: “Her straight, shoulder-length brown hair makes her look younger than someone “rapidly approaching middle age,” as she puts it. She has the taut physique you’d expect from someone who turned a used treadmill into a walking desk that she uses during endless Zoom meetings.”