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Keys to recovery

Employees rely on grit, dedication after Irma

USPS vehicle drives along sand
Letter Carrier John Schaefer drives an LLV along sand mounds this week in Marathon, FL, one of the communities ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma has proven no match for the Postal Service employees who are leading recovery efforts in the Caribbean and the southeastern coastal areas.

Like employees in all the affected communities, USPS workers in the Florida Keys, one of the hardest-hit regions, are relying on grit, dedication and postal pride to restore normalcy.

Here are some of their stories.

‘It’s nice to be back’

Alison Rohaley doesn’t have power or running water in her South Florida home, but that didn’t stop her from getting back to work this week.

The Marathon, FL, retail associate served Hurricane Irma victims inside a tent where they can pick up their mail and packages.

“It’s nice to be back at work,” Rohaley said.

The tent is near the Marathon Post Office, which has been closed since Irma struck. Rohaley is one of nine employees, some from neighboring areas, working to get the mail moving again.

“We have about 3-4 days’ worth of mail here,” said Calvin Villalobos, a Marathon postal support employee who joined USPS about six months ago.

The employees are focused on delivering the most crucial mail, while also ensuring they work safely in their temporary surroundings.

“We’re working to get medications out,” said Post Office Operations Manager Denise Young. “Once we get the medicine out, then we can focus on the other packages.”

‘Everybody’s pulling together’

Judy Gardiner is back on the road this week after returning from Kissimmee, FL, where she and two Key Largo, FL, employees waited out Irma’s powerful winds.

The Marathon rural carrier hasn’t had a chance to go back to her South Florida home yet, but she returned to work when it was deemed safe to do so.

“Everybody’s pulling together,” she said.

Meanwhile, colleague John Schaefer, a letter carrier, has been sleeping outside his home to keep cool at night.

Resuming his route is bringing reassurance to customers returning to their homes.

“They were worried about me because they know I stayed,” he said. “They’re happy to know I’m OK.”

‘Word is starting to get out’

Omayra Cruz is a welcome sight to her customers.

The Key West, FL, retail associate returned to the job this week after last working Sept. 5.

Customers are slowly trickling into the Post Office to retrieve their mail.

“A lot of people don’t know we’re open,” Cruz said. “Many businesses are still closed and boarded up.”

Chester Kalb, a Key West resident, returned home this week and was happy to find the Post Office open.

“I filled out a hold mail card before I evacuated, but I don’t need it anymore,” he told Cruz, who assured him deliveries to his home would resume.

In Long Key, FL, Retail Associate Dorothy Howell is operating a mobile retail unit just outside her flooded Post Office.

Howell’s office has over a week’s worth of mail.

“Word is starting to get out that I’m here,” said Howell, who is the Post Office’s only employee. “Customers are coming for their packages and held mail.”

‘We have to have faith’

All of Kitty Wheeler’s employees evacuated the Florida Keys to escape Irma’s wrath.

“Some went as far as Connecticut,” said Wheeler, Postmaster of the Big Pine Key, FL, and Summerland, FL, Post Offices.

Like other Postmasters in the area, Wheeler is relying on the support of employee volunteers to get things up and running.

Big Pine Key’s incoming mail is being transported to the Key West Post Office to be processed by volunteers, including two Miami letter carriers, Joaquin Neto and Cesar Gonzalez.

“The mail has been held up for weeks,” said Gonzales, who drove nine hours to and from Key West each day until the Inspection Service secured lodging for him and others.

Like other offices, the priority is on delivering medication and other important mail.

“When they asked for volunteers, checks and medicines came to my mind first,” said Neto. “The pharmacies are closed. The only way they can get it is through us.”

Another volunteer at the Big Pine Key Post Office is Lizbeth Viruet, a West Palm Beach letter carrier who kept her mind on her work despite concerns about her family in Puerto Rico, which was slammed by Hurricane Maria this week.

“My whole family is in Puerto Rico,” she said.

Volunteers are staying as long as they can to help their displaced colleagues.

“We have to have faith and build up together again,” said Gonzalez.

‘I am extremely proud’

The Postal Service employees’ efforts in the Florida Keys and other affected areas have impressed colleagues across the nation — including Southern Area VP Shaun E. Mossman.

“Postal employees are committed to service, including during times of crisis,” he said. “Even in the face of personal loss, employees throughout areas impacted by Irma showed up to work, ready to deliver for our customers.”

Mossman said he appreciates the leadership of the district managers, their teams and the special recovery team working on site in South Florida to restore full mail service to residents.

“I am extremely proud of the entire Southern Area team and the dedication, strength and commitment they’ve shown.”

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