In San Juan’s post offices, it feels lately as though all of America has started sending care packages. And that's a lot of work.
Thousands upon thousands of parcels have finally started pouring in on flights from the mainland. They are stuffed into giant silver containers, off-loaded at a special cargo area at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and driven to two processing facilities.
But since Hurricane Maria cut a terrible path across Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, the logistics of handling all the packages have been daunting.
U.S. Postal Service inspectors from as far away as Seattle have been flown in to help keep the cargo area secure from potential thieves. The backlog of packages is so great that the local post office wants to hire 100 temporary employees to help sort them. Adding to the work: It’s not uncommon for generators at the processing facilities to go out, plunging everyone into darkness.
Mail carriers, many already enduring tough living conditions at home, cannot access unsafe areas in the island’s interior. Traveling any of the routes is a slow process because post-storm traffic across Puerto Rico is often gridlocked.
And then there are the packages themselves — many are just too heavy.
Loved ones are stuffing boxes so full of water, cans and clothes that many of the containers break during flights. At the cavernous hangar that serves as the packages’ first stop — run by a private company called Cargo Force — damaged packages are set aside in big boxes.
On one afternoon last week, postal inspector Eliezar Julian picked up a white box meant to hold up to 70 pounds. A ragged gash revealed cans of Spam, Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs, corn and evaporated milk. What fell out was anyone’s guess, but it could have been the bag of Halloween chocolates, peanut-butter stuff pretzels, water bottles or feminine hygiene pads, all part of the pile of loose goods that had escaped packages.
Five giant boxes were whisked away to a “patch up” operation, where employees did their best to assemble a jigsaw puzzle of canned goods. Often times, the public mistakenly thinks their packages have been looted.
“Too heavy and it will break and you will lose the contents,” said Julian, a federal agent and spokesman. “It will be very difficult for us to put it back to where it belongs.”
He picked up another package box, weighing 18 pounds, wrapped tightly in heavy-duty clear tape. “This packaged is reinforced right,” Julian said.
With so many goods flowing into the needy island, the need for security at Cargo Force is clear.
Weeks after the storm, inspectors arrested a subcontractor, Christian Joel Encarnación-Sandoval, after he was found with four generators in his car at the Cargo Force loading dock. According to a criminal complaint, a supervisor noticed him “acting suspiciously and with a nervous behavior” on the night of Oct. 7.
He gave a written confession, Inspector Jose Hernandez Rocha wrote in the criminal complaint. A federal grand jury has since indicted Encarnación-Sandoval for mail theft and he has pleaded not guilty.
Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s postal service was getting some 60,000 parcels of mail each day. With the backlog and added relief supplies, that number has skyrocketed.
Mail carriers, especially in the ravaged rural areas, must climb over downed trees and debris on the streets to deliver care packages.
“They cry and they hug you and kiss you. Their families are sending batteries and food,” said mailman Jorge Mendez, 47, a former Clearwater resident who also sometimes brings water to the elderly residents on his route in Sabana Grande, about two hours from San Juan. “I can’t even describe the feeling.”
Employees are working seven days a week — with help being sent in from offices around the country, including postal inspectors and cops from Miami to New York.
Alfredo Santiago, a postal police officer whose job is to patrol the airport, has been working non-stop since the storm damaged his home island — and his apartment in the town of Loíza.
But he’s happy for the assistance. “We’re very grateful they’ve come to help us,” he said.