I’ve been working on issues around natural disasters for a number of years now, but I confess that I’d never given much thought to post offices and disasters. That changed this week when I met with Flori McClung, who works with the U.S. Postal Service on international issues and is supporting the Universal Postal Union’s (UPU) efforts to grapple with the issue of disaster risk reduction. After the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, the government of Japan provided a special grant to the Universal Postal Union (which is, by the way, the world’s oldest international organization, founded in 1864) to work on disaster risk reduction. The UPU, which works in association with various regional postal organizations, has adapted the Hyogo Framework of Action to its work, but is now looking at ways to share the experiences of post offices in disasters, to develop training materials, and to consider other ways the post office can be used before, during and after emergencies.
After a disaster, when the post office resumes operations, it is a clear signal that government is getting back to normal and that infrastructure is once again functioning. “There are over 30,000 post offices in the U.S.,” Ms. McClung said, pointing out that in small remote communities, post offices may be the closest and most visible agents of the government, “and in many parts of the world as in the U.S., people have trust in the post office, perhaps more than in other governmental agencies.” After a disaster, when the post office resumes operations, it is a clear signal that government is getting back to normal and that infrastructure is once again functioning.
We talked about the potential role of the post office in disaster risk reduction, for example, in serving as a center for basic information about precautionary measures to take when hazards are possible. And we brainstormed about the role of the post office when disaster strikes. Could post offices be centers of communication? Could they have emergency generators or satellite phones which communities could use when electricity and phone lines go down? Could letter carriers – who know the families in the neighborhood – be useful in identifying vulnerable individuals or in helping to track down those who have been displaced by disasters? The U.S. Postal Service has over 600,000 employees and there are some 6 million people worldwide who work for national postal services – that is a resource which can be used in preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters.
And there is a clear international dimension. “In some ways,” Ms. McClung said, “the post is like a big family.” The Universal Postal Union, for example, has a solidarity fund which it can use to support post offices in other countries when disasters hit. And the Postal Service did its best to support the post in Haiti when the earthquake hit and, jointly with the UPU, sent a team of experts to help in the Philippines when Typhoon Haiyan struck. The Japanese contribution to UPU’s work in disaster risk management is another expression of that solidarity. I’m glad that Flori McClung attended one of our events on disasters and even more glad that she took the time to come and talk with me. I’m sure I learned more than she did from our conversation. Most of all our conversation made me realize how important it is to get everyone on board when it comes to disaster risk management – even, perhaps especially the post office. I’ll look forward to hearing more about the U.S. Postal Service and the Universal Postal Union’s work to prepare for the world’s future disasters.
Elizabeth Ferris is the co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy, where her work encompasses a wide range of issues related to internal displacement, humanitarian action, natural disasters and climate change. Her book, The Politics of Protection, examines the challenges — and limitations — of protecting vulnerable populations from the ravages of war and natural disasters.