East Coast attacks strangle mail service in Alaska

Dearth of mail especially hard in Bush

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2001

There's no bread and milk in Nome.

Child support checks for parents in the Bush aren't going anywhere, and in Bethel there's fear that about 100 people won't be able to vote absentee in Oct. 2 local elections.

All around Alaska, residents dependent on the U.S. Postal Service as a lifeline are finding that a national tragedy on the East Coast has accomplished something that neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night could do.

The estimated 2 million pieces of mail normally handled daily in Alaska has slowed to a trickle after three days of an unprecedented nationwide grounding of civilian and commercial aviation.

"Incoming mail is piling up in Seattle. What we had here that was going to the Bush is sitting here," said Nancy Cain Schmitt, spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service office in Anchorage.

Ferries and other watercraft continue to ship the lower-priority parcels, which means Juneau continues to get its junk mail.

"We don't even have that to burn," said Leo Rasmussen, mayor of Nome where a panic buying spree shortly after Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., emptied shelves of bread and milk.

"I would guess we are probably looking at two or three days for some type of supply to take place," Rasmussen said.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta reopened the U.S. airspace on Thursday to air travel with new and tighter security measures imposed on airliners. Scores of flights were canceled, and transportation officials warned that air service will take some time to resume normal operations.

Alaska Airlines expected to make only 22 flights to the Last Frontier on Thursday, said Jack Evans, Alaska Airlines spokesman. The carrier, which normally hauls about 550,000 pounds of mail per day on its flights, carried none on Thursday, he said.

The Seattle-based carrier received special permission to carry mail on its passenger flights, which is barred in the Lower 48 under tighter security measures, he said.

"We expect to be up and running in mail and cargo in passenger service as we ramp up service," Evans said. "We hope it will be sooner rather than later."

Smaller cargo carriers resumed flights to remote villages, but it will take them some time to catch up as well, they said.

"We're just strangled here with so much freight and we need to get it out of here," said Colin Dolan of Northern Air Cargo. The company, which carries groceries, building supplies and other essential goods to remote towns such as Bethel and Nome, planned to fly extra days to catch up, Dolan said.

Half of the 2,400 child support checks mailed to parents in Alaska this week were expected to be delayed because of the flight restrictions, said Barbara Miklos, director of the Child Support Enforcement Division.

"There are many people that depend on their child support," Miklos said. "The bottom line is this will create problems for people."

Bethel City Clerk Colleen Soberay said an absence of about 100 absentee ballots, which are due on Monday, is causing some consternation.

"With service starting to resume, the mail will eventually get out and the sooner the better," said Bob King, spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles. "There still may be additional delays as the national air system gets back to full operations."

Schmitt said the 350 postal workers in Anchorage who sort mail are adequate to handle the expected crush as mail again starts to flow freely in Alaska. There are no immediate plans to increase cargo flights to distribute the mail to remote areas, Schmitt said.

"We are going to be hustling to get the mail out," she said.



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