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New population statistics gloomy
Rate of return to area down dramatically
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
By Gordon Russell

After a string of encouraging months, the return of New Orleanians to the metro area seems to have slowed to barely a trickle in the second quarter of 2006, an analysis of change-of-address forms filed with the U.S. Postal Service shows.

The number of people who lived in the region before Hurricane Katrina and had come back as of June 30 rose by only 2,000, or less than two-tenths of a percentage point, compared with three months earlier, according to the data. If extrapolated, the figures suggest the metro area's population stood at less than 1.1 million at the end of June, compared with the region's pre-Katrina population of 1.5 million.

The estimates include 171,000 pre-Katrina New Orleanians who have returned to the city. Current estimates from city officials and others claim that a total 210,000 to 250,000 people are living in New Orleans, though they don't say how many of them were here before the storm and how many are workers who have come for the rebuilding.

The postal service tracks only households that were receiving mail in the area when Katrina struck; it does not account for new migrants. Also, an unknown percentage of people who leave a place never file change-of-address forms. As a result, it's difficult to estimate the region's population using the postal data. However, the data is thought to provide a fairly accurate measure of the comings and goings of the area's pre-Katrina residents.

Assessing the message

Demographers had mixed reactions to the latest set of change-of-address numbers.

John Logan, a Brown University demographer and sociologist who has studied post-Katrina migration patterns, called the new figures "discouraging," noting that he and others had hoped to see a spike in returns over the summer as families prepared for the school year. He blamed the trickle in part on a lack of leadership and confusion about the city's future among the displaced.

"This is a time when public officials have to make the hard decisions about where and how to invest, and enough time has passed since the local elections that one could expect more decisive action by now," he said.

But William Frey, a demographer who has also written extensively about the diaspora, said that the data, since it's dated June 30, may have missed some of those returning for school. Data captured after the school year begins and after the state begins dispensing federal aid to homeowners may give a more accurate picture, he said.

"But if you don't see a jump then, I'd say things aren't looking too good," Frey said.

Greg Rigamer, whose firm GCR & Associates has worked with local and state officials on population estimates, put a more positive gloss on the numbers. For one thing, he noted that the change-of-address data does not include students and workers who have migrated to the area.

For another, he said, the plateau effect that appears in the numbers was expected. He expects the city to gain just 20,000 residents in the next six months, for instance.

"I have thought from the beginning that we would see a quick return of recoverable property and its pre-Katrina occupants," he said. "From there, it slows down quite a bit. . . . I think it will be a slow go from here for the city."

The last report

The new data is the fourth, and slated to be the final, release of such information by the Postal Service in an effort to help the news media chronicle the diaspora set in motion by the hurricane. Similar batches of numbers were released on Oct. 10, Dec. 31 and March 31.

The first two sets of data proved what was already fairly well-known: that tens of thousands of people from the region had made new homes, albeit mostly temporary ones, all over the country, but especially across the Gulf South, from Houston to Atlanta.

If the first two releases served to document the unprecedented size of the migration, the March 31 data showed a steady and heartening flow of former residents back to the city and its suburbs. Population extrapolations based on the March data indicated a return of about 30,000 people to the region in the first quarter of the year.

The latest release portrays a much slower return for the second quarter, just 1,829 people.

There was more movement within the region, though, and the data was somewhat cheerier for the city of New Orleans. The 701 ZIP code, which roughly corresponds to the city but includes a sliver of Jefferson Parish, regained around 8,500 of its pre-storm inhabitants, the data indicate. Still, that was less than a third the size of the group that returned in the first three months of the year.

The data indicate the city had by June 30 regained about 37 percent of its pre-storm population, equaling about 171,000 people, somewhat lower than other estimates.

Entergy New Orleans officials said in June that, based on power usage, they believed the city's population to have reached 210,000. Rigamer said he estimates the city had 235,000 residents as of July 1. Mayor Ray Nagin, more optimistically still, said at a recent news conference that the city had already topped 250,000.

All of those estimates, unlike that derived from the Postal Service data, include the influx of workers who did not live in the area before the storm.

Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport demographer and political scientist who has raised questions about some of the rosier estimates, said he thinks the change-of-address extrapolations are pretty close to the mark.

"I think we're about at 200,000 (in the city) right now, but I think a lot of the people in that count are not permanent residents," he said. "They're workers, they're people who are in town sometimes, trying to figure out what to do."

Logan said that group may include 20,000 or more. He expects their numbers to grow as the recovery takes hold, and many of them are likely to stay for good, he said.

Suburbs even worse

If the postal data indicated a slowdown in the city's recovery, the numbers were more discouraging still in the suburbs. In fact, the 700 ZIP code, which includes Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and the river parishes, and the 704 ZIP code, which includes five north shore parishes, both had fewer "original" residents in June than they did in March.

Some of that trend owes to the continuing return to the city by New Orleans residents who had temporarily relocated to the suburbs. But there were small signs of trouble in the numbers as well.

For instance, while the ZIP codes south of Lake Pontchartrain counted fewer pre-Katrina residents living in Houston or Baton Rouge in June than three months earlier, the opposite was true for the North Shore ZIP codes, where devastation was far less pronounced.

That was evidence that a few residents had hung around after the storm, but then apparently decided to throw in the towel on the New Orleans region.

Gone for good?

Even in New Orleans, where the population is at least rising, the slow rate of return raises questions about how many of the city's original residents will come back.

As of June 30, the data indicated that only 37 percent of the city's pre-storm residents were back in town, although 47 percent were in the region. Frey said getting that number up to 60 percent over the long haul would be impressive.

Rigamer says that "the longer people are away, the less likely they will return."

This summer, he said, "is critical. If people enroll their children in a school system in another area, they are putting down roots. While some will eventually return, many will not."

Frey said he believes many of the people who had an easier path back, either because of wealth or limited damage to their homes, have come back.

"The question is, what's going to happen to those more far-flung people, especially if they know very little about who's going to pay to fix their house or what the neighborhood is going to look like," he said. "How long will it take them to shift their internal compass, to say, 'I'm pretty established here?' "

Stonecipher added that he believes some prognosticators are failing to consider how many people will continue to leave, even as the recovery starts to take hold. It's a group whose existence is hinted at in the latest round of data.

"I think a lot of the people here now are still going to leave," he said. "They're going to watch the crime . . . Entergy and all, and say, 'I'm out of here.' "

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Gordon Russell can be reached at or at (504) 826-3347.