How Mail Is Delivered During Natural Disasters

Delivering mail must be resumed within 12 hours of an emergency event, because bringing things to people is most important when those people have just lost everything.
September 17, 2020, 12:00pm
Apocalypse and mail carrier
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This article was sent on Tuesday to subscribers of The Mail, Motherboard’s pop-up newsletter about the USPS, election security, and democracy. Subscribe to get the next edition before it is published here, as well as exclusive articles and the paid zine.

Hey everyone, welcome to another edition of The Mail. Before we get started, two quick announcements. 

First, we're getting the zine ready for the printer, which means this is your last chance to sign up if you want to get it, and I really think you will. Here’s a preview:

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I can’t wait to get my copy. Make sure you get yours by clicking the button below.

Second, our colleagues at Waypoint are doing their annual fundraiser called Savepoint to raise funds for National Bailout. You can read more about it here, but basically it's a gameathon to raise money. The whole shebang will be broadcast on Waypoint's Twitch channel. I will be joining Motherboard's Editor-in-Chief Jason Koebler on Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern to talk about post office things. Hope you can join us! 

Ed Curzon had two minutes to get out. It was the morning of October 8, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California, and he awoke to the smell of smoke and the sight of glowing orange embers blowing in the wind. The houses across the street were on fire. 

"So think of everything in two minutes that you'd want to take from your home, and that's pretty much what we took," Curzon said in an interview for a National Letter Carriers Association documentary about the fires. "We got the dogs, each other, a pillow and a blanket, our cell phones, our IDs, and that's about as much time as we had to get out." 


Curzon's home of 29 years burned down that day, along with virtually all the homes in Coffey Park, a neighborhood in Santa Rosa. It was the hardest hit neighborhood in the hardest hit city of the most destructive wildfire in California history up to that point. 

Curzon was one of 13 letter carriers in Santa Rosa who lost their homes. The fires continued to burn in the city for more than a week, filling the air with smoke and ash. But just a few days after losing his house, Curzon went back to work.

Jerry Andersen, president of the NALC Branch 183 in Santa Rosa, told Motherboard recently that Curzon wasn't the only one who went back to work despite losing so much. "We asked them why they were coming in and they said 'I don't have anything to do.' And they felt they had their duty to deliver the mail."

It may seem odd that letter carriers felt the need to deliver mail while fires were still burning. After all, it was 2017. Many Americans—especially ones in Santa Rosa, not far from the Bay Area and Silicon Valley—probably believe everything important happens online or, at worst, over the phone. In a disaster, do people really need their mail? 

According to FEMA, the answer is yes. Delivering mail is considered a "Primary Mission Essential Function," meaning it must be resumed within 12 hours of any emergency event. 


The reason for this is simple. People impacted by hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards, flooding, and pandemics need things, whether it be food, medicine, clothes, blankets, or any number of other physical objects to stay alive and begin the process of rebuilding their lives. The post office brings these things to people. And, through tools like mail forwarding, it keeps track of where people are in a way no other federal agency can.

Not only do Americans in distress need their mail, but they need their mail carriers, who have unparalleled local knowledge about their neighborhoods and the people who live there.

That's one of the reasons Curzon went back to work while the remains of his home were still smoldering. In the documentary, he explained "I don't know why I went to work, but I have a lot of elderly people on my route and some special needs people and there was such a lack of communication. There was smoke everywhere, there was a lot of confusion on the streets. Half of me wanted to run away from this problem and the other half wanted to make sure some of those people are going to be OK."

Some carriers in Santa Rosa returned to their routes only to find virtually all of the homes along it were no longer there. One carrier had 293 homes along her route before the fire. Afterwards, there were only 18 still standing. As Curzon demonstrated, they know which families are especially vulnerable and need to be sought out for emergency care.


Not only do postal workers go back to work sooner than anyone else in the face of disaster, but they keep working through conditions most others wouldn't tolerate. There has perhaps never been a more illustrative year than the one we are currently living through. Through the pandemic, hurricanes, and now historic wildfires burning across the west, the USPS has, for the most part, continued to deliver the mail.

Of course, you won't see any LLV delivery trucks plowing through flames (unless, of course, the flames are coming from the truck itself). The USPS does, in fact, stop delivering mail when conditions become unsafe. For example, when local authorities issue evacuation orders for wildfires or hurricanes, postal workers leave, too. 

In fact, where the USPS has stopped delivering mail is about as good of a snapshot as you'll get of where in America is currently in a desperate crisis. The USPS National Map is a kind of Down Detector for the post office. It shows which of the USPS's 32,000-plus facilities are experiencing limited or no service due to issues ranging from power outages, maintenance issues, and natural disasters along with NOAA map overlays. As of Monday early afternoon, the map looked like this:

USPS service status map

USPS service status map. Screenshot: USPS National Map

As you can see, there are a lot of closed post offices where Tropical Storm Sally is making landfall in the Gulf Coast and along the wildfires in the west. In most of those areas, delivery is suspended as well. You can find a full list of residential service disruptions at the USPS's website here.

It is impossible to write about the post office delivering (or not) in harsh conditions without mentioning its unofficial motto "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." This sentence—written by Herodotus about the couriers ferrying news during the Persian Wars of 500 B.C—is inscribed on the majestic James A. Farley post office complex in Manhattan (which was also, somewhat ironically given the inscription, the epicenter of the 1970 postal workers strike). But the USPS's official mission statement reads as if Herodotus got a lobotomy:

The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. 

For the countless times I've had postal workers recite Herodotus's words back to me or seen the sentence cited in some scholarly or literary work about the post office, I have never heard anyone mention its "mission statement." Hardly surprising, really, I just typed the sentence and can barely even remember it. 

But I don't think it's just because Herodotus's words are easier to remember and more poetic. In one sentence, it provides what every corporate mission statement fails to achieve. It inspires people, or at the very least reminds them of a profound sense of purpose. 


And many postal workers latch onto that inspiration. Working through wildfires in particular, where health officials tell people to stay indoors as much as they possibly can, is a physically taxing experience. For example, Portland, Oregon is experiencing some of the worst air quality the country has ever seen at the moment, but postal workers are still making their deliveries. 

I spoke to one letter carrier there who described the city as "apocalyptic" right now. When he's gotten off of work the last few days, he has a layer of grit all over his skin, needs to stick a q-tip up his nostrils to get the black smut out, and has a blistering headache. The N95 masks only do so much. He said the smoky air is much worse than other extreme weather like heat waves or ice storms, because you can take a break from those. But not the wildfires. "I don't think I'd ever get used to this," he said. "Every single second I'm out in this stuff, all I can think is I can't wait for this to be over."

When disaster strikes, we look for robustness. We look for the big structures that won't blow away in the storm, the concrete fire-resistant gymnasiums, the places we expect to survive, and we count on them to see us through the worst of it. We look for the people who respond well in crisis, who know what to do when times are tough, who react quickly, decisively, and knowledgeably. So, too, do we look for robust institutions to help us get back on our feet. Not the ones that deliver to us only if it is profitable or easy, but the ones that are here for us every day, that endure. And, despite everything that has happened to the post office over the years and decades, there is still no American institution more robust than the post office.


In the documentary about Santa Rosa, Andersen used a phrase I have been thinking about a lot when reading the news coverage about the current wildfires. He said that once the first responders like the EMTs, firefighters, and police move on to the next tragedy, the post office workers are "the second responders. We're there and showing people hey, we're back, and we're going to make this right." 

This has been a year for second responders, the ones who quietly make life possible. The post office is far from a perfect institution, but in times of trouble, we seek normalcy. And there is nothing more normal, nothing more routine, than getting the mail. 

When I spoke to Andersen about all this, he said after the Santa Rosa fires, he noticed something strange. He doesn't know how to explain it, but even in neighborhoods entirely wiped out by the fires, where every single house burned down, one thing seemed to still be standing in front of every lot. For some reason, the mailboxes were still there.

The Week In Mail

Mail-in voting news:

  • My colleagues at VICE put together a guide on how to vote by mail in all 50 states. 
  • Many states have harsh penalties for anyone who double votes, as Trump has encouraged his supporters to do. In Georgia, the Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is alleging hundreds if not thousands of Georgians did exactly that in the June primary, although he hasn't presented any evidence of it yet. Either way, it's worth noting here how easily someone could accidentally vote twice if election officials screw up. Let's say you send in your vote-by-mail ballot, but then go to the polls just to make sure your vote was counted, only to find it wasn't, so you vote in person, because election officials mistakenly didn't relay to the poll workers your vote had been tallied. Is that a crime? Raffensperger says yes: "“At the end of the day, the voter was responsible and the voters know what they were doing. A double voter knows exactly what they were doing, diluting the votes of each and every voter that follows the law.”
  • Colorado sued the USPS over a vote-by-mail information postcard being sent to every residential address in the country. On Saturday, a judge issued a restraining order against the USPS from sending the postcards out in that state. The state's argument is that the postcard contains misinformation because it tells voters to request a ballot at least 15 days before the election, but a handful of states like Colorado automatically mail a ballot to every voter. The judge ruled the postcard is likely to confuse voters and therefore should not be sent.
    I must admit, of all the things that could potentially cause "irreparable harm" to the voting process in Colorado or any state, this postcard seems low on the risk list to me. The bullet point above the one Colorado took issue with says "Rules and dates vary by state, so contact your election board to confirm.” It then directs people to the url, which is little more than a portal to your state election website. Even if someone completely misinterprets the postcard into thinking they have to request a ballot when they don’t, all they will do is go online and see that they don’t have to request a ballot. Considering all the insane rhetoric about vote-by-mail coming from the White House all the way down, does anyone really believe this is what will confuse people? If nothing else, this goes to show just how poorly the USPS works with states on vote-by-mail issues. The lawsuit is here and the postcard is on the third page.


USPS news:

  • A Senate report found mail-order pharmacies reported an increase in average delivery times between 18-32 percent in the summer. Good thing no one relies on prompt delivery of…medicine?
  • “This man is doing a tremendous job,” USPS Republican board member John Barger said of DeJoy last week. Similarly, the USPS says service is continuing to improve without acknowledging why it tanked to begin with.
  • The USPS is refusing to release DeJoy's calendars for completely bullshit reasons because the calendars of public officials are public documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The courts will eventually force them to do this, but probably not until well after the election.
  • My Motherboard colleague Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reported on a potentially catastrophic security vulnerability that the USPS Inspector General found had been hiding in their computer systems for years. USPS says they fixed it. I asked Lorenzo what he thought about this story and he said "Government systems tend to be shittily maintained but this could have been really bad."
  • Little known fact: “Mr. Trump entered the White House when not a single [USPS] board member was in place — Republicans had blocked all of President Barack Obama’s nominees — and as its long-term fiscal viability was increasingly in doubt.” 


We have received more than 50 postcards! Thank you so much to everyone who has sent them in. In addition to featuring some here, we’re including many more in the zine. So keep ‘em coming!

And, as a reminder, we'll be doing a snail mailbag at some point in the future, so if you have questions feel free to start mailing them in.


Our address is:

VICE Media c/o Aaron Gordon
49 S 2nd St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211

A woodland path in Maine












I couldn't capture the holographic element of the T.rex stamp, but I can assure you it was indeed sick. Also, I hate to disappoint J. but I do not have any cool stamps. I bought a bunch of the frog forever stamps for my personal correspondence, but I'm looking to get some better ones. 

See you next week,