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Mail in Vero makes a long trip to cross town

Vero Beach letters are trucked to Orlando and back before delivery

By Elliott Jones
staff writer

VERO BEACH — May 16, 2005 - Lois Schwartz's first-class letters to her Garden Club members across town take a 200-mile overnight trip to get delivered the next day. Long gone are the days of hometown mail handling and postal marks.

Growth in mail volume nationwide — and cost-cutting by the U.S. Postal Service — has resulted in automation and centralization.

The nation's 600 million pieces of daily mail are trucked to 235 regional mail processing facilities scattered across the United States. Indian River County's letters go to a 200,000- square-foot building near the Orlando International Airport. There, Schwartz's letters become part of a blur of mail — 3.5 million in all daily — running through high-speed sorting machines.

Humans still help. About 550 employees staff the 24-hour-a-day plant. They roll around carts of letters and look for glitches in the system.

But technology and three miles of conveyor belts do virtually all the work that would otherwise take an army of people days to do, postal officials say.

At the heart of the system are optical scanners that read a letter's address despite it passing by at a rate of nine a second, 30,000 an hour.

Scanners take pictures of the addresses. Pictures are electronically relayed to computers that convert the information into bar codes that are almost instantaneously printed on the bottom edge of letters — as all the mail keeps speeding along.

Then sorting is done by bar code.

When computers can't read an address, a picture is electronically relayed to Tampa to a computer where a human helps decipher gibberish by consulting a computer database of 135 million addresses nationwide.

Within a span of about five minutes, the corrected address usually can be sent back to Orlando so the letter can continue on its way.

Even for postal workers, the process can be mystifying.

"Miraculous," Postal Service employee Robert Elrod said of the Orlando system, as he made sure incoming mail wasn't clumped together, creating clogs in the machines.

Indian River County's mail arrives at the Orlando plant by about 8:30 p.m. By midnight, Schwartz's letters are all sorted by Zip code and are ready for shipment back to the county, postal officials said.

If she had club members in Fort Pierce, their mail would have to be sent to another regional processing facility in West Palm Beach — adding at least another day to the delivery time.

Orlando only does a direct turnaround for mail within its region: an area extending from Vero Beach to Melbourne on the east and to Leesburg and Orlando on the west.

After leaving Orlando, Indian River County's letters go through one last automated sorting before being handed to mail carriers.

Letters go to local sorting centers that arrange the envelopes in the order they will be delivered, address by address.

Mail to the south end of the county is sorted at the Postal Service's Citrus Ridge Branch, west of Vero Beach. North county mail, including Barefoot Bay's, goes to a postal facility in Palm Bay.

By 8 a.m., letters are ready for carriers.

And Schwartz's first-class letters can get to their destinations the day after she puts them in mail collection boxes, if she made the 5 p.m. deadline that most boxes have.

"I have no complaints" about the speed of delivery, Schwartz said.


First-Class Mail, fast facts

• The U.S. Postal Service uses regional automated mail sorting centers to do the work that used to be done in hometown post offices. Indian River County's mail gets the postmark of a regional U.S. Postal Service center in Orlando.

• For overnight delivery, mail needs to be in mail pickup boxes by 5 p.m. By 5:30 p.m. mail trucks are on the way to Orlando. At midnight, the mail usually is ready to be shipped back. Mail is ready for carriers at 8 a.m.

• U.S. Postal Service equipment digests mail at a lightning pace. It has to: The Sebastian area alone has 60,000 letters a day, and the south county has 100,000 first-class letters. By the end of the year, about three more delivery routes will be added to keep up with growth west of Vero Beach.

• Not everything goes right. An unglued letter flap can stall a letter. So can poor handwriting and no Zip code. "Please print legibly," said Gloria Santiago, supervisor of automated equipment in the Orlando processing facility.


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