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Posted at 06:42 PM ET, 07/13/2012

Reader Meter: Cleaning up from the derecho storm

Here’s a little storm clean-up from my e-mail.

A lot of readers wrote in agreement with my July 8 column taking The Post to task for inadequate coverage of the destructive derecho storm, and many of them had specific suggestions on stories that reporters can pursue now, in the wake of the damage, or to keep in mind for future storms that cause massive power outages.

And they also wrote to praise two parts of The Post that I neglected to mention in my column.

First the praise:

A number of readers wrote to praise The Post’s circulation team for getting their morning papers to them despite the downed trees and power lines and blocked roads.

 Bob Hurt of the District wrote this: “I was stunned to emerge from my powerless house on Saturday morning, and there, in the pre-dawn darkness, was my usual two copies of the Post. As my Northwest D.C. neighborhood looked as if it had been hit by an air strike, I have no idea how this dedicated soul navigated the debris and closed streets.”

Christopher Coughlin of Arlington wrote this: “I was very happy to get a paper at all…  Both the Post's production and distribution were on time when everything else was in some form of disarray. If the quality of the reporting on the storm and outage required some goosing, none was required with regard to the most basic requirement - reach your readers. I'm sure it was hot and uncomfortable for many [of the carriers], but they accomplished their mission. I’m glad that they did.”

Kudos also go to the Capital Weather Gang, Jason Samenow and his crew, plus a thanks to storm-chasers Kevin Ambrose and Ian Livingston, who were out photographing the onset of the storm, only to get caught in it themselves by surprise, sustaining damage to their equipment and nearly to themselves. (Ambrose’s harrowing account of getting caught in the storm with Livingston is well worth your time.)

Marty Brumback of Maryland wrote in to say, “I concur in your opinion that the Post's coverage of the storm was subpar regarding the electrical, 911 services, police response, and IT outages. Surprisingly, however, you failed to mentioned what was outstanding; to wit: The Washington Post Capital Weather Gang meteorologists who were on top of the derecho like flies on sugar.”

Now for the suggestions from readers, who were most concerned about the 911 outage in Northern Virginia and Verizon’s response to it, Pepco’s response to the outages and some deeper stories, assessing the costs of the storm to property, the economy and local governments.

 Marianne Mears of Northern Virginia was particularly disappointed in the coverage of the loss of 911 service. She said that, in the first days after the storm, you had to read too deep into The Post’s overview stories to find out much about the 911 failure. She recommended that, in the future, whenever 911 goes out anywhere in the region, the Post should put an alert out to mobile users as well as place a small box on the front page telling readers what numbers to call to get help.

Gordon Jarratt of Oak Hill, Va., said the Post should have looked into its own archives to trace the history of 911 outages in both Maryland and Virginia, which have been more frequent and disturbing than most readers realize — at least four times in the past three years. “With 1.1 million residents, Fairfax County is larger than eight entire states plus D.C.,” Jarratt wrote. “It is totally irresponsible for Verizon to not build in enough redundancy into its local 911 system which truly affects so many lives.” 

 Readers also noted that the communications difficulties were made worse because so many people get their land-line phone services through networks such as Verizon Fios or Comcast Xfinity, which are powered by electricity, and not through the old copper phone lines, which had their own source of power and often worked even during power outages. Similarly readers said there was too little coverage of the power outages affecting cell phone service, with mobile towers being knocked out and calls being dropped constantly.

One reader from Rockville wrote: “There seems to be some idea that everyone has a smart phone. Wrong! In addition, if your reporters had been doing their job they would have discovered that the cell phone service was a mess. Until this power failure, we have never had calls dropped, huge static, inability to connect, etc. on our standard cell phones.”

 This same Rockville reader also had two suggestions for stories:

“What is being done about low-income people who lost power for days and had to throw out all their refrigerated food, as we did?  I estimate we lost more than $300 just in our refrigerator/freezer. We can afford to replace the food, but what about those on food stamps?  I don't recall seeing any information about this problem in the Post.”

In addition, this reader wrote: “I think the Post should try to prepare an estimation of what the outage cost was to individuals, businesses, the region's economy, in addition to Pepco's and utilities’ costs. We estimate that the outage cost us about $1,000, including the food we lost and had to replace, the motel we had to stay in for four days, and eating out from June 30-July 7. That amount did not include the cost of boarding our dog for the duration of the outage.”

 And finally from a longtime subscriber, who said how important The Post is to readers during a crisis: “It is a bad time when the WTOP Web site has more information than the print edition of the Post. This was an extraordinary event that was the talk of the entire coverage area, even among those who retained power.  It was time to break down any section barriers and put all the reporters in the field.  And give them the ink to get the message out.”

By  |  06:42 PM ET, 07/13/2012

 
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