Delivering Despite Disaster

In 2005, along with millions of other people, postal employees faced one of their greatest challenges.

On August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Miami, Florida, as a category 1 hurricane. The storm headed southwest to the Gulf of Mexico, where it gathered strength before making landfall again on the morning of August 29 near New Orleans, Louisiana. By that time Katrina was a category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph. Later that same day, the New Orleans levee system failed, filling the city with water.

One of the most destructive storms in United States history, Katrina devastated entire sections of coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and put 80 percent of the City of New Orleans underwater. The storm claimed more than 1,800 lives, with many more unaccounted for, and displaced more than one million people.

Before the storm hit, the Postal Service diverted inbound New Orleans-area mail to the Houston, Texas, mail processing and distribution center. At the New Orleans processing and distribution center, employees moved mail to an upper floor, to protect it from floods. Within days of the storm, the Postal Service joined with the Social Security Administration and other agencies to arrange for the distribution of Social Security, pension, and benefit checks, which were due to be delivered at the beginning of September. The Postal Service set up temporary check distribution centers; they delivered more than 30,000 checks before the centers were closed in mid-September.

More than 4,000 postal employees and their families were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, ending up in nearly every state. Through national media outlets, the Postal Service urged displaced employees to check in via a national toll-free hotline to make sure employees received their paychecks as well as assistance and job-related information. Despite suffering personal losses, many postal employees returned to work almost immediately to help deliver checks, medicines, and other vital mail.

Through national news media the Postal Service also urged displaced residents to file change-of-address forms so that their mail could be sent to them directly, bypassing storm-stricken regions. Customers filed forms online at www.usps.com, over the phone at 1-800-ASK-USPS, and at local postal facilities. Mail facilities were set up in temporary shelters at Houston’s Astrodome and in dozens of communities throughout the nation so that mail could reach evacuees wherever they were. By year’s end, the Postal Service had processed change-of-address forms from more than 520,000 households that had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina as well as Hurricane Rita, which struck near the Louisiana-Texas border the following month. Due to intense national interest the Postal Service provided an overview of change-of-address data to national news media, since it was the only reliable way to track the movement of evacuees.

Besides Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two other major hurricanes — Dennis and Wilma — hit the southern United States during the 2005 hurricane season, which was the worst on record. All told, in 2005 hurricanes destroyed 17 postal facilities and damaged more than 500.

Despite the devastation, postal employees delivered, handing out mail from trailers, recreational vehicles, and even tents, where street delivery was not possible. Within two weeks of Hurricane Katrina, full service had been restored to 82 percent of affected Post Offices. Mail service in New Orleans resumed in October, when residents began returning to the ravaged city. The eventual resumption of street delivery was a welcome sign of normalcy. As letter carriers gradually returned to city streets they were greeted with smiles, laughter, hugs, and tears.