Local mail delivery slowly improving
But no magazines go to ZIP code 701
Sunday, February 05, 2006
By Michelle Hunter East Jefferson bureau
Lisa Barbiero, a displaced New Orleanian living in Houston, opened her mailbox there on Jan. 23 to find a letter from the American Medical Association. Forwarded around its original Crescent City destination, it bore a postmark of Aug. 31.
"It makes me wonder where that little purple letter has been all this time," Barbiero said.
Five months after Hurricane Katrina paralyzed mail delivery in southeast Louisiana, New Orleans area residents find the Postal Service still in rehab. Tardy letters, delayed billing statements, invitations to long-ago holiday parties, AWOL insurance checks and the continued ban of magazines and other periodicals for the ZIP codes beginning with 701 are among the common symptoms.
But Postal Service officials say they've made some strides in the past few months, in large part because letters mailed to and from New Orleans area addresses no longer make a 540-mile loop through Houston. The change cut a day or two off delivery time, Postal Service spokesman David Lewin said. And in April, the processing plant at the area's main post office at 701 Loyola Ave. in New Orleans is expected to reopen, eliminating another loop through Baton Rouge.
"We know that we do have some problems out there, and we're working on them," Lewin said. "As the weeks go by, people are going to continue to see improvements."
Post-Katrina mail service around southeast Louisiana remains slow, however.
Well aware of the delays, Dr. Lisa DeFusco sent off her application to renew her state medical license on Dec. 10, almost two months ahead of the deadline. When she learned Jan. 4 that the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners still hadn't received her check -- even though its office is just three miles from her Uptown home -- she panicked.
"What if I hadn't called?" she wondered. "My license would have expired, and I wouldn't have known."
Delays in payments
Delivery delays also have plagued utilities and other businesses trying to restart billing procedures.
Spokesman Chanel Lagarde said Entergy has seen an increase in customer complaints about mailed payments in the past two weeks. It's taking five to six days for most customer payments to reach Lansing, Mich., where they are being sent as part of Entergy's catastrophe plan, Lagarde said. But 10 percent to 20 percent of the payments have delays of up to three weeks, he said.
The Times-Picayune found similar delays in January, when the newspaper conducted a second experiment to track delivery times since the Aug. 29 hurricane.
During the first experiment in October, six people living in various parts of the New Orleans area mailed letters to one another. Each person also received two more letters, one sent from Georgia, the other from New York. Delivery times ranged from two to 14 days. Mail between local addresses averaged about six days.
In January, however, the maximum delivery time was down to eight days, and the local average had dropped to four days. An anomaly surfaced with letters to Mandeville: They took one to two days longer than they did in October.
Lewin said first-class letters to and from New Orleans-area addresses could expect overnight service before Katrina. Mail traveling through any wider area within the continental United States would have arrived within three days. He called results of the newspaper's second test another small sign of improvement.
No more Houston
That comes courtesy of the new path for the mail.
For months, letters bound for the New Orleans area traveled to Baton Rouge for a postmark, on to Houston to check for change-of-address orders, back to Baton Rouge, then to St. Rose for sorting and finally to the appropriate local post office for delivery. In December, the Postal Service cut off the Houston leg after equipment to process more than 450,000 Katrina-related change-of-address orders arrived in Baton Rouge, Lewin said.
Postal plants in Houston and Baton Rouge had stepped in to pick up the slack after the New Orleans processing plant on Loyola Avenue flooded. Before the storm, the New Orleans plant processed 6 million to 8 million letters daily for Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles and St. Tammany parishes, as well as parts of Mississippi and Alabama, according to the Postal Service.
The Loyola Avenue processing plant is scheduled to ramp up in April, significantly reducing delivery delays, he said. Its lobby, with retail, mail pickup and box service, is scheduled to open Feb. 20.
When temporary trailers open at the Chalmette post office on Feb. 13, it will end a weekly 108-mile round trip for Walter Geiser. Now living in a trailer at the old Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. plant in Chalmette, Geiser picks up mail for himself, the St. Bernard Sheriff's Office and eight friends at the temporary mail site set up for St. Bernard customers in Covington.
"They call me the Mailman," said Geiser, a Postal Service retiree.
Coming to Chalmette
The Chalmette trailers, at 3340 Paris Road, will allow St. Bernard residents to buy stamps, send letters and pick up mail closer to their pre-Katrina homes. Lewin said partial home delivery service will begin a few weeks after the trailers arrive.
While the reopening of post office sites is sure to ease delays, Lewin said, some of the holdup can be attributed to the high number of address-change orders. He said the Postal Service's change-of-address system was not designed to handle the almost half-million orders that Katrina has generated.
It's also possible that some residents still have multiple address-change orders in the system, or they've moved to a new permanent address but haven't properly notified the post office. Those problems could cause mail to loop several times through Baton Rouge.
Lewin suggested that customers contact the post office to check the address they have on file. And customers should contact any entity sending them mail -- credit card companies, banks, employers or Aunt Rose -- to report address changes.
That might be an especially good idea for residents displaced from 701 ZIP codes, where magazine and other periodicals are still banned, Lewin said. Newspapers, catalogs, magazines, journals, advertising mail and newsletters will not be delivered in 701 ZIP codes for at least six more weeks, Lewin said. He said the Postal Service just doesn't have the staff or the space to handle periodicals which numbered 2 million to 4 million pieces a day before the storm and still take care of first-class mail.
But the Postal Service is not holding anyone's Sears catalog hostage in a warehouse somewhere, he said. Once the ban went into effect, shortly after Katrina struck, most publishers simply stopped sending periodicals into the area.
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Michelle Hunter can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 883-7054.