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Hard Census Count Helps New Orleans Move Forward

Feb 4, 2011 – 5:43 PM
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Laura Parker

Laura Parker Contributor

The changes to New Orleans became visible almost as soon as the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina receded in 2005, but having a real count today from the release of 2010 census data will enable the city's leaders to know what's actually going on in the post-Katrina world for the first time.

New Orleans lost 140,845 residents in the past decade, new census data shows. The city's population now stands at 343,829, down 29 percent from 484,647 residents counted in the 2000 census. The city has lost 54,188 children, a drop of 47 percent. That means that the Crescent City is smaller by almost a third, is whiter and has lost almost half of its children since the storm.

And knowing that will help the city better plan everything from trash pickup to measuring the crime rate.

"One of the post-Katrina trends that painted New Orleans in an unflattering way was the crime rate," Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer, told AOL News.

"The crime rate was all over the place because we had such a wide range of denominators used to measure it. You could literally pick and choose. We had one group that said divide it by this number. Another group said divide by that number. Now we have an actual denominator by which we can calculate anything with greater confidence."

The Lower Ninth Ward is seen with homes newly constructed.
Mario Tama, Getty Images
The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans is seen with newly constructed homes by the Make it Right Foundation on Aug. 24.
In the first few years after Katrina, population estimates were made using a variety of yardsticks, such as utility hookups or households receiving mail. The U.S. Census Bureau's own estimates in the first three years were so low that city officials contested them and got them raised.

The actual 2010 count is 11,000 people fewer than the 2009 estimate.

Campanella said he had believed the Census Bureau's lower estimates and feared the city would pay the price when the new census was taken.

"My concern was that when we finally counted heads that the difference between the bloated estimates would become the news narrative. The headline would read: 'New Orleans Not Recovered to Degree Thought.' I hope that's not the narrative."

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a statement that he will not contest the count because it's within 3 percent of the 2009 estimate.

"Our progress has always been much bigger than a population number," Landrieu said. "Today, our recovery is in full gallop."

Katrina upended Louisiana's map all over the state, with inland parishes gaining new population as residents in coastal parishes hard hit by hurricanes migrated away from the coast:
  • Jefferson Parish, where many Hispanic construction workers settled as they worked to rebuild New Orleans, saw its Hispanic population increase by 66 percent.
  • In St. Bernard Parish, downriver from New Orleans, flooding was so severe that virtually every building was damaged or destroyed, the population dropped 47 percent. Parish President Craig Taffaro said he is thinking of challenging the count.
  • In St. Tammany Parish, north of Lake Pontchartrain, residents who fled St. Bernard re-created their own neighborhoods in new subdivisions, helping to boost the population by 22 percent -- an increase of 42,472 residents.
One coastal surprise: Plaquemines Parish, which drew the spotlight when its marshes were oiled during BP's spill last year, lost only 14 percent of its population, despite Katrina's destruction.

"The population is disproportionately tied to the geography and landscape," Campanella said. "They are fisherman and shrimpers. They had to live in Plaquemines Parish."

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The shrinking of New Orleans contributed to Louisiana's losing one of its seven congressional seats, although the state has been growing at such a slow rate for so many years that it was on track to lose the seat even without Katrina's wallop.

The changes ensured that Louisiana will remain apart from its Southern neighbors, all of which are growing much more robustly as Americans migrate steadily to the South and West. For example, next door in Mississippi, where Katrina's winds savaged the coast much more severely, the state population grew by 4.3 percent in the last decade to 2.97 million residents.

That compares with Louisiana's anemic 1.4 percent growth since 2000 to 4.53 million residents statewide.
Filed under: Nation, Katrina, AOL Original
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