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People Need Their Medicine. We Have to Move the Mail.

During Public Service Recognition Week, Remember the Unsung Heroes of Hurricane Sandy: Postal Workers!

Katherine McFate

In 2013, Hurricane Sandy pushed a wall of water into New York Harbor, turning streets into rivers andbasements into lakes. A power station on the lower west side of Manhattan was one of the first buildings to flood; the circuits shorted out immediately, plunging much of the city into darkness. Fifteen blocks north, the whir and bustle inside the U.S. Postal Service’s Morgan Processing and Distribution Facility was replaced by the sound of sloshing water, as employees there worked without power under the dim glow of emergency lighting. The giant facility, an avenue wide and two streets long, processes most of the mail delivered in New York City.

About a hundred postal workers had made their way through the storm, some walking from outer boroughs to get there. No one demanded that they come. The mayor told everyone to stay off the streets. No one expected them to appear, but they did.

As night fell, a few union officials stopped by to see if it was safe to work. They found their members standing in puddles. If the power would have surged, the workers might be electrocuted – some machines were now submerged on the flooded floor. Alarmed, they told the workers to go home; it was too dangerous. But one man pointed to a cart loaded to the brim with mail-order prescriptions and said, “People need their medicine. We have to move the mail.” Postal workers know that people rely on them. So move the mail they did. Silently, through darkened streets, still flooded and unprotected by traffic signals, they drove. Through rain and floods and dark of night, postal workers did their duty and served the city. What commitment.

For many of us, the postman was the first public employee we ever saw or recognized. Because he (and when I was a child, they were almost all men) came to the door at the same time each day, bringing a lovely combination of regularity and anticipation. Our mail carriers are friendly reminders that we are part of a neighborhood, a community, that our government knows who we are and where we live and will be there if we need them.

That ethos of service in the wake of Sandy has long been part of the Postal Service’s history. On Saturday, May 9, you can join that legacy. The National Association of Letter Carriers is conducting its 23rd annual “Stamp Out Hunger” Food Drive. On this day, mail carriers across the country collect nonperishable food donations from people along their route and deliver them to local food banks. Last year, aided by thousands of volunteers, letter carriers collected 73 million pounds of food for those who needed help. What a wonderful way to support the communities they already serve.

Given this commitment, the deliberate attempt to slowly strangle this national miracle (New York to Hawaii in three days for 49 cents) is painful to witness. The Postal Service isn’t broke. It is facing a fiscal crisis manufactured by an “independent” board that clearly wants to see this public service privatized. Management signed a contract with Staples last year that made its stores “authorized postal retailers.” A friend of mine recently visited two post offices in Baltimore looking for a Priority Mail envelope. The post office clerk reported their supply house said there was a shortage, but the nearby Staples had an oversupply. But at Staples, the packages are stacked high on unsecured counters that anyone can reach, and if you drop off your parcel five minutes after the daily pick-up at 2 p.m., your letter, express mail, or package sits at Staples overnight. At the local post office, anything dropped off before the lobby doors are locked at the end of the day gets on the move by that evening.

This week is Public Service Recognition Week. Thank your mail carrier or your post office clerk. Give him or her some canned goods on Saturday for those in need in your community. And then sit down and write a letter to the Postmaster General. Tell her how much you appreciate the folks who work at the Postal Service and why we want it to stay a public service, connecting to and serving local communities.

Postmaster General Megan Brennan
United States Postal Service
475 L’Enfant Plaza SW
Washington D.C. 20260-0010

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Katherine McFate

Katherine McFate is the President and CEO of Center for Effective Government.

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