Mail, private deliveries to New Orleans area are interrupted

Credit card companies, IRS, Social Security announce plans to help

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Postal Service and private delivery companies struggled yesterday to restore service to hurricane-damaged parts of the Gulf Coast but remained cut off from their operations in flooded and lawless New Orleans.

Meanwhile, pensioners evacuated from areas ravaged by Katrina converged on Social Security offices in nearby cities to receive replacements for checks mailed to stricken areas.

The postal service set up mobile post offices in three hard-hit Mississippi cities - Biloxi, Gulfport and Escatawpa - so people cut off from their homes can pick up benefits checks, spokesman Gerry McKiernan said.

It was planning to open similar centers in Louisiana, as well as a temporary New Orleans post office in the Houston Astrodome, where many of those forced from their homes were being taken.

McKiernan said mail service had been restored to 70 percent of Louisiana, including all but the far eastern part of the state.

The parts with no service include New Orleans, where authorities have ordered a full evacuation and civil order has broken down, and areas south of there where damage is extensive. "There's just nothing there," McKiernan said.

The postal service listed dozens of ZIP codes on its Web site where service has been suspended or curtailed. The private United Parcel Service, Federal Express and DHL delivery companies were taking similar steps.

Postal authorities also asked bulk mailers and magazine publishers not to send mail addressed to the affected ZIP codes. McKiernan said mail intended for New Orleans was piling up in Dallas and Houston.

The spokesman also encouraged residents of evacuated areas to submit change-of-address forms at the nearest post offices - even if they are staying somewhere temporarily.

McKiernan said the some post offices and at least two major postal distribution centers - including one in New Orleans - had been heavily damaged and an unknown amount of mail had been destroyed. He said it would be some time before the postal service would be able to fully account for its losses.

"We've weathered a lot of hurricanes in the past," McKiernan said. "We made it through, but this is really devastating."

The hurricane struck the Gulf Coast just before the beginning of the month, when Social Security checks were going out.

Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, said the agency is doing everything it can to get money into pensioners' hands as soon as possible.

Lassiter said people who couldn't receive their checks at home could get them by appearing at any of the offices that remained open. He said business was particularly brisk in Baton Rouge, La., where many New Orleans residents fled.

Eight Social Security offices in Louisiana and six in Mississippi remained closed, he said.

Private package delivery companies were also severely affected. United Parcel Service indefinitely suspended service in and around New Orleans and Slidell, in Louisiana, and Pascagoula, Gulfport and Biloxi in Mississippi, according to spokeswoman Donna Barrett. The company posted another group of ZIP codes where service might be delayed because of difficult conditions.

Barrett said that of 22 UPS centers closed for the hurricane, 11 had reopened.

Jim McCluskey, a spokesman for Federal Express, said the company was accepting packages for all destinations except New Orleans - even though there might be delays and delivery problems in some areas.

Credit card companies said they would be flexible with customers in areas were mail service might have been disrupted.

MBNA Corp., the giant credit card issuer based in Wilmington, Del., will give a "payment holiday" to all of its customers in the affected ZIP codes.

"They will not have to make a payment in September and neither will they be subject to fees or late charges and their accounts won't go delinquent," said Jim Donahue, an MBNA spokesman.

He said that, upon request, the company would also make provision for emergency credit limit increases and cash.

Dan Drummond, a spokesman for Your Credit Card Companies, a consumer education group funded by the industry, said all of the major companies are making provisions for customers in the hurricane-stricken region.

Industry leader Citigroup Inc., for instance, announced that it will offer affected customers grace periods, fee waivers and "other solutions as appropriate." JPMorgan Chase & Co. said it would work individually with customers and would prepare a disaster-relief loan program for south Louisiana.

Hurricane victims can also count of a break from an agency not always known for kindness: the Internal Revenue Service.

The tax collection agency extended certain filing deadlines to Oct. 31 for individuals and businesses in the hurricane zone. It also said it would waive interest and penalties on late payments.

The IRS also reassured taxpayers who lost homes and businesses that it would help them reconstruct their tax records.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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