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Days after the deadly 2017 wildfires in Santa Rosa, California, a drone caught footage of a USPS worker, Trevor Smith, driving through charred homes in that customary white van, collecting mail in an affected area. The video is striking: The operation is familiar, but the scene is apocalyptic. According to Rae Ann Haight, the program manager for the national-preparedness office at USPS, Smith was fulfilling a request made by some of the evacuees to pick up any mail that was left untouched. For Smith, this was just another day on the job. “I followed my route like I normally do,” Smith told a reporter. “As I’d come across a box that was up but with no house, I checked, and there was mail—outgoing mail—in it. And so we picked those up and carried on.”
USPS has sophisticated contingency plans for natural disasters. Across the country, 285 emergency-management teams are devoted to crisis control; Pat Mendonca, the senior director of the office of postmaster general, told me that these teams are trained annually using a framework known as the three p’s: people, property, product. After a weather-necessitated service outage, the agency’s top priority is ensuring that employees are safe, after which it evaluates the health of infrastructure, such as the roads that mail carriers drive on. Finally, it decides when and how to reopen operations.
If the devastation is extreme, mail addressed to the area will get sent elsewhere. In response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, USPS preemptively diverted inbound New Orleans mail to Houston. Mail that was already processed in New Orleans facilities was moved to an upper floor so it would be protected from water damage.
But the agency aims not to keep delivery suspended for too long. “It’s our drive to get back out on the street with our carriers,” Mike Swigart, the director of national preparedness at USPS, told me in December, “because that’s our legislative responsibility.”
As soon as it’s safe enough to be outside, couriers start distributing accumulated mail on the still-navigable routes. USPS urges those without standing addresses to file change-of-address forms with their new location. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, mail facilities were set up at the Houston Astrodome and in dozens of other locations across the country in the two weeks that USPS was unable to provide street delivery.
Every day, USPS processes, on average, 493.4 million pieces of mail—anything from postcards to Social Security checks to medicine. Spokespeople from both USPS and UPS told me all mail is important. But some mail can be extremely sensitive and timely. According to data released by ACI Worldwide and Aite Group in January 2017, 56 percent of bills are paid online, which means that just under half of payments still rely on delivery services to be completed.