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Census tallies Katrina changes
But the changing New Orleans area is a moving target
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
By Coleman Warner Staff writer

In a sweeping collection of demographic information showing how Gulf Coast communities were reshaped by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the U.S. Census Bureau will release data today showing that the storm's impact left the New Orleans area somewhat older, whiter and more affluent, even as more people temporarily found themselves in food stamp lines.

New population estimates for July 1, 2005, and Jan. 1, 2006, offering pre- and post-Katrina benchmarks, give heft to the notion that, while there was widespread devastation along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the storm's human toll was concentrated in the New Orleans area.

Population losses in the parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines in the months after Katrina totaled 385,439, roughly nine times the combined losses for Mississippi counties hit hard by the storm.

The population estimates and an American Community Survey report -- each covering 117 counties and parishes in four states -- largely buttress what was already known anecdotally or through studies more limited in scope. But the census reports provide much-needed detail for planners and others trying to gauge the storms' impact, experts said.

But there are weaknesses in the reports. The data is several months old, at a time of fluid change as areas recover, and the Census Bureau was unable to include data from group housing, such as emergency shelters and motels.

While the Census Bureau, tapping a U.S. Postal Service change-of-address database, estimated Orleans Parish's Jan. 1 population at 158,353, New Orleans demographer Greg Rigamer estimates that the city's population more than five months later has rebounded to at least 221,000. Meanwhile, information provided by Entergy New Orleans regarding the number of electrical hookups showing usage translates to a population of about 210,000.

"It's a mistake to think that these numbers provide a comprehensive look at the effects of Katrina," Steve Murdock, a demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said of the census. "They provide a certain snapshot, but they are clearly only a partial picture."

Race, cars, income

While an inadequate household survey sample didn't allow for release of demographic data for many individual parishes, the Brookings Institution, which publishes a Katrina Index report, finds that "the whole metropolitan area of New Orleans is becoming whiter and less poor and more mobile," said William Frey, a demographer for the organization.

The American Community Survey, which contrasts data gathered in the first eight months of 2005 with data collected in the year's last four months, shows that the percentage of New Orleans area residents identifying themselves as African-American or black declined from 37 percent to 22 percent, while the white percentage rose from 59 percent to 73 percent.

The percentage of any race who identified themselves as Hispanic rose slightly to more than 6 percent. Across the region, tens of thousands of Latinos have taken up residence, eager to take on storm-recovery tasks.

Josť Rios, 36, a Mexican immigrant from Texas who runs a food trailer in New Orleans near a spot where Latino workers are picked up for daily construction jobs, said, "Every time you look up at the roofs, the guys doing the hard work, they're all Hispanic."

Low-income people made up a smaller percentage of the metro-area population after Katrina and fewer households reported that they had no access to a vehicle, while the typical household income rose by thousands of dollars, according to the census survey. However, the survey also reflected the widespread use of Louisiana Purchase cards by residents of various income levels, with the estimated percentage of households receiving food stamps rising from 10 percent to 39 percent, according to the survey.

High margin of error

The survey pointed to longer commute times for local workers and to a rise in the median age of New Orleans area residents, a result of the temporary relocation of more than 100,000 school-age children. That trend has been partly reversed since the fall.

"We all know anecdotally of many, many people whose children went to school either in other Louisiana locations or out of state, and are gradually coming back," said Karen Paterson, a demographer with a Louisiana state data center.

The survey provides a preliminary set of data to show a dramatic rise in vacant housing units, a decline in the percentage of working-age population holding jobs, a decline in the percentage of people living in the home where they resided a year earlier and a slight uptick in the average household size, among other gauges.

Census officials concede the findings have significant margins of error, because of the difficulty of finding residents who were included in a survey list developed in early 2005. Bureau representatives didn't seek out temporary housing when they were looking for local residents after Katrina.

Because of the difficulty in reaching people after the storm, demographic results were released for only 22 counties or parishes out of the 117 labeled severely affected in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, said Lisa Blumerman, deputy chief of the American Community Survey office.

Demographers said the new data sets have clear limitations, but are still valuable to those involved in recovery planning.

"The fact that there's any information in this kind of detail is important," Frey said. "Their best use is to show what was the immediate impact of the hurricane on these areas. It gives you sort of a low benchmark to start from."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Coleman Warner can be reached at or (504) 826-3311.