Tuesday, August 30, 2005

People vs. Customers: Getting The Numbers Right When Disaster Strikes

A common media mistake is confusing the number of utility customers who lose power during a storm or disaster with the number of people affected. Sometimes, it's local officials who facilitate those mistakes, but more often than not it's a case of sloppy writing or reporting.
Often times, "customer" and "people" will be used interchangeably, when one customer is actually a single bill-payer, but could be the head of a family of five. So, that means six people in that one house are affected, even though it's only one customer, as far as the utility is concerned.
One utility in the New Orleans area, Entergy, says all of its customers, about 750,000 people, are without power, according to the Times-Picayune. Presumably, not all of them pay a bill, but its customer base accounts for 750,000.
It's important to provide the proper context for these numbers. Suffice to say millions of people in three states are without power. And judging by what officials are saying, it could be a month or more when they can say otherwise.

By the way, the latest dispatch from the Times-Picayune might be the last one for a while. An item posted on www.nola.com at 9:40 a.m. revealed the staff was evacuating its building while they still could. Meantime, the .pdf version of today's paper, with photos that are nothing short of stunning, is available at http://www.nola.com/hurricane/katrina/.
The staff has our thanks and our best wishes.


This Reuters story makes it clear the customers are who the utilities are trying to get to, and has the full scope of the story in its sights.
Meanwhile, the Times-Picayune remains on the run, but James Varney managed to file this compelling slice of life as Southeastern Louisiana now knows it.

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