Climbing Out Of The Rubble Of Sandy

The entire Eastern seaboard, but now mostly New York and New Jersey, has been struggling through the aftermath of Sandy, one of the strongest storms to ever hit the country. At one point 8 million people were without power and the flooding reached into Manhattan as far up as 23rd Street. More than 50,000 families remain homeless and the process of demolishing between 200 and 500 homes on the coast is set to begin.

The Postal Service suffered moderate to extensive damage to over 3,000 local post offices (the majority are back in business as repairs continue) and had serious service disruptions to its NDC network. The mailing industry took it on the chin as well in the hardest hit areas. I was extraordinarily fortunate on a personal level because I relocated a few months ago to an area that only lost power for a few minutes but was landlocked and surrounded by the roadblocks of fallen trees and the eerie darkness of powerless towns for nearly two weeks.

The Postal Service worked hard to restore service to workable levels where deliveries could be made and set up temporary sites in other post offices where people who lost their homes to fire, wind, or flood could retrieve their mail. The larger network facilities were back working at limited capacity within 24 to 48 hours of the storm’s aftermath. However, this is not to say there weren’t some significant hitches to operations and a few major communications failures.

Some facilities were listed on industry alerts and storm contingency reports as able to accept larger mailings on a basis of a dozen per day while running on generator power or manually moving the product. As it turned out, in a number of cases trailers were held and then mail was turned away after 12-16 hours of wait time with advice to locate another facility able to take the mail. In some instances, mail was turned away from the alternate facility as well.

The problem was not so much in turning away trailer loads of mail and being directed elsewhere. This unprecedented storm was of monumental proportions and scope. The problem was in not making customers or even other postal facilities aware of some of the limitations, and of contingency plans not able to accurately redirect mail in some cases. Temporary accepting facilities were uncertain as how to handle mails as well. No one at these sites was consistent in determining whether or not destination rates would still apply to these jobs. Emphasis was on First-Class Mail for priority delivery, but in a number of cases where Periodicals were held or delayed in transit, newer copies ended up being delivered before the older copies once the logjam began to lighten.

No one can fault the Postal Service in doing everything it could to keep mail moving and injected into the system. However, it may have been a better call to tell customers to hold mail or to enter it in non-affected facilities than to try to tax flood-damaged or powerless facilities to get as much mail as possible in the system. Many of the employees needed to accomplish these tasks were unable to get to work to back up the faltering sites.

This was a significant lesson in how to prepare for the worst-case scenario, now knowing that the picture can continue to change rapidly even after the storm’s passage for human resources, power and for fuel. It is a clarion call for what could become an all-too-familiar weather pattern in the future.

I would be remiss as well if I failed to thank the dedicated employees who kept the postal system from completely failing during this crisis. Best wishes go to all postal employees who rode out this disaster and who lived by the phrase “never say never.”

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