Fear adds weight to mail crush
By MELIA BOWIE
Procrastination was not an option.
Ashley Davis knew that back when streetside vendors were still pushing pumpkins. The St. Petersburg mom was writing cards and planning her postal strategy long before holiday lines began to form at the malls.
In the aftermath of anthrax attacks and with the post-Thanksgiving rush now under way, postal workers, who are bracing for record volumes of mail this season, said customers like Davis who mail early will be met with extra appreciation and some new pointers.
"Our holiday tips may be a little different this year," warned Gary Sawtelle, a postal spokesman in Tampa. "Nationwide, the post office is experiencing 750 (anthrax-related) incidents a day. It's had quite an impact on us."
Although they declined to discuss security measures and screening procedures at a Tuesday morning press conference in Washington D.C., postal leaders advised customers to ship early and often -- something mortgage processor Xann Young of Clearwater was already doing Tuesday afternoon at the Crossroads Station post office in St. Petersburg.
Awkwardly shifting a big brown box and equally oversized envelope in her arms as she stood in a long line, Young said the box and four others crowding baby strollers and car seats in her minivan were stuffed with Christmas gifts and winter clothes for her family's 10-day trip to New York in December.
"I've had these in my car for about two weeks," she confessed. "I figured I'd better do it now or it won't get there on time."
Locally, additional workers will be called in to help with the Christmas rush in some area post offices, said Sawtelle. Some local post offices will use irradiation devices to sanitize the 70 to 80 percent increase in holiday mail that typically passes through Tampa Bay postal centers this time of year.
Meanwhile, officials are working to gauge whether the holidays will result in a boom in postal business or a bust for the beleaguered service, which has lost billions since Sept. 11.
"Revenue for the period Sept. 5 through Oct. 8 alone is $300-million under pre-Sept. 11 projections," Sawtelle said.
In St. Petersburg, "I think our (holiday) volume will be down a little this year," projected Tom Pawlowski, postmaster for the city, where the main branch processes an average of 1-million pieces of outgoing mail a day in December -- up from its daily norm of 325,000 pieces.
"There's probably still a little bit of concern out there and just economics alone . . . people being laid off have less money and might not be mailing packages," he said, adding the typical jump from 6,000 parcels to 30,000 per day during the holidays may dip.
However, "there's a couple of schools of thought here," countered Sawtelle, explaining "one is that people are going to be traveling less so they'll be mailing more. People will be digging out their Christmas lists and looking at them a little more carefully."
Given the nationwide fear of anthrax, customers are being urged to either wrap well or avoid sending powdery substances during the busy season. Anything that spills from your package could cause a major delay in a post office for testing.
Recently, "in St. Petersburg we've had 25 or 30 incidents" of powder spotting, said Pawlowski. During the past month in Tampa and along the Suncoast, more than 80 suspicious incidents have been handled -- none was deemed harmful by hazardous materials teams, Sawtelle said.
Postal workers said they are turning their attention to happier tasks: making sure Christmas cards and packages find their way to old friends, separated military families and customers such as Bradenton school teacher Jayne Cobb, who sends dozens of holiday cards to her students each year.
"I think everything is different since Sept. 11; I knew that the day it happened," acknowledged Cobb. But changes in the world will not change her postal habits, she said. "It's still safer to get mail than it is to drive or a lot of other dangerous things."
Holiday mailing hints
Mail early. The Postal Service expects to handle more than 20-billion pieces of mail nationally. This year's busiest mailing day is projected to be Dec. 17 while the busiest delivery day will be Dec. 19.
Let recipients know when a package is on the way and include a return address.
Place a return address inside the package.
Do not place batteries in toys.
Use Parcel Post service through Dec. 14 for all destinations and through Dec. 19 for local destinations.
Use Priority Mail through Dec. 20 for all destinations and through Dec. 22 for local destinations.
Use Express Mail through Dec. 21 for all long range U.S. destinations and through Dec. 22 for destinations within 150 miles.
International packages should be mailed by Dec. 8 to ensure pre-Christmas arrival.
-- Source: U.S. Postal Service
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