U.S. Mail Service, Getting Back on Track
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The unofficial letter carriers' credo holds that neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor dark of night shall keep a mail courier from his or her appointed rounds. But that famous motto says nothing of hurricanes or floods. Mail service was among the many things upended by Katrina. The US Postal Service is recovering. Full mail service has resumed in more than 80 percent of the affected region. But connecting hurricane evacuees with their mail is still quite a challenge. Jack Potter is the postmaster general of the United States, and he joins us now.
Mr. Potter, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. JACK POTTER (US Postmaster General): Good afternoon, Michele.
NORRIS: Now when we say that mail service has resumed in the storm-stricken areas, what does that mean? Does it necessarily mean that mail carriers are delivering packages and letters to people's homes?
Mr. POTTER: It means a variety of different things. There are portions of New Orleans city in particular where we do not deliver any mail. For those customers who were in those areas, we're asking them to provide us forwarding information so that we can provide delivery wherever they are in the country. And then in other areas of--predominantly for the rest of the region, we have back-to-normal service: retail operations and delivery to their door where roads are passable.
NORRIS: And you say that you want people to let you know where they've now landed. How do they get access to the forms? Where do they actually get the forms and then where to they send them or drop them off?
Mr. POTTER: Well, we have three different options for people to tell us where they're now located. You can dial 1 (800) ASK-USPS. You can go online: www.usps.com. Or you can come into any post office in the United States and fill out a change of address form there. If you don't have all the information, you can take it home with you and complete it and put it into any mailbox. We have set up postal facilities or tables at each of the relocation centers throughout the country, and as people were brought into those centers, we asked them to fill out the change-of-address information. FEMA is using the mail to communicate with those folks, and many of them are getting medication, so we're trying to work with the pharmaceutical companies to make sure that they know where their customers are.
NORRIS: Well, evacuees in so many cases are somewhat itinerant, and they will be for weeks and months to come. How will you keep up with them as they continue moving?
Mr. POTTER: We have a system called the Postal Automation Redirection System. We'll introduce mail for the affected areas--parts of Mississippi and Louisiana--and we won't ship it to the area. We'll actually run it through a machine here in Washington that processes at about 30,000 pieces of mail an hour. It will read the name and address, know that that's a piece of mail that's to be forwarded. It will be brought offline, and it'll be labeled to the new address, again, anywhere in the country. So let's say it was a person relocated to Los Angeles. We would put the Los Angeles address on right here in Washington, DC, and bypass the Gulf. They may move multiple times, but we would like them to give us the information each and every time they move so we can have the mail keep pace with them and follow them as they relocate.
NORRIS: Well, as you try to keep pace with these evacuees as they move along, it seems that not all mail is of equal importance. Is there any way to flag or note relief checks or insurance payments or medication as it moves through the mail so it might be given priority?
Mr. POTTER: Well, we've worked very closely with the Social Security Administration to identify checks. Immediately after the storm, and if you think about the timing of the storm, it happened as Social Security checks and first-of-the-month checks were being shipped through the mail. We set up stations throughout the area for people to come and pick up their Social Security checks, their retirement checks. As best we can we're adjusting our systems to meet those needs.
NORRIS: Mr. Potter, help us understand the scope of the issues you're dealing with. How many change-of-address forms have people filled out to this point?
Mr. POTTER: Well, we've received over 236,000 change of addresses for households. In the coming months, we expect that number to grow.
NORRIS: The postal workers--they too were affected by this storm and the flooding. They saw their homes damaged as well. Have you had a hard time bringing people back to work?
Mr. POTTER: Many of them--the vast majority of them have showed up at the post offices where they work, and they're there today working. I am very proud of all of our people for having come back to work as quickly as they have. I'm very proud of the folks who are--find themselves in locations outside of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama who have come to local post offices, told us they're a postal employee and advised that they want to work wherever they are, and I think it's an amazing story about the loyalty and dedication of our work force and how they've risen to the occasion here.
MORRIS: Mr. Potter, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. POTTER: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: Jack Potter is the postmaster general of the United States.