Joplin tornado zone faces confusion over revised Postal Service policies

Monday, March 12, 2012 | 1:20 p.m. CDT

JOPLIN — A decision by the U.S. Postal Service to stop door or porch delivery of mail in the parts of Joplin most severely damaged in last year's tornado has drawn complaints from residents and a grievance by union postal workers.

The postal service decided to install curb-side or neighborhood collection boxes in neighborhoods where expedited debris removal occurred after the May 22 tornado devastated parts of Joplin. A decision has not been made about mail delivery in parts of the disaster area where houses were damaged but not destroyed, The Joplin Globe reported.

Duane Graham, a retired postal carrier and secretary of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch No. 366, said the union has filed a grievance over the change, saying residents are supposed to be notified and give approval of any change in mail delivery.

City officials said they granted permission only for temporary cluster mailboxes, not a permanent change in delivery. But postal officials respond that it's not the city's decision to make.

Richard Watkins, a postal spokesman in Kansas City, said collection boxes, which require keys to be opened, offer security and efficiency in an area where not many homes have been rebuilt.

"It's far more secure for customers, not just for incoming mail, but for those outgoing checks and gift cards." He said individual mailboxes are vulnerable to theft, which could be devastating for tornado victims receiving important items such as insurance documents and checks.

Keith Grebe said a cluster mailbox for people who live on streets behind him just showed up about a month ago.

"A box appeared on the roadway; no one had said anything about it," Grebe said. "It is on city property — the easement — but it is right (in front of) where I intended to build a gate to the back of my property. It wasn't identified."

He hauled it into his garage and even ran an ad in the "lost and found" section for the newspaper. He said a post office official finally notified him that removing the mailbox is considered a felony.

"I was told they are looking at putting these up in order to cut costs. They said they will still deliver to older people and people who cannot get out but they were looking at doing this in all of the tornado area. It was never presented to me as a security measure. That seems a little unusual. In my area there are a lot of houses," Grebe said.

Dave Hunt, a traffic engineer for the city of Joplin, said the city thinks placement of any type of box next to a road required city permission, so that it does not interfere with the line of sight for motorists or create a traffic hazard. The city also told postal officials that they needed permission from people who are going to be affected or by the property owner where the box is located.

Chris Robertson, supervisor of customer service for the Joplin postal service, said the city has the authority over the boxes' location but not the change in the type of delivery. When houses are rebuilt, curbside mail delivery could replace cluster boxes but porch delivery by a walking mail carrier is gone permanently, he said.

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