Address changes offer insight into city
But don't read too much into it
Sunday, February 05, 2006
By Gordon Russell Staff writer
The number of New Orleans mail customers who registered new addresses outside the metropolitan area jumped by more than 37,000 during the last two months of 2005, with the Houston area firmly establishing itself as the most popular destination for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, according to new figures released by the U.S. Postal Service.
Thousands of suburban residents also filed change of address forms in the last two months of 2005 for locations outside the metro area, although in much smaller numbers than city residents, the figures indicate.
The statistics, which include change-of-address filings through Dec. 31, show that residents continued to register addresses elsewhere well after the storm's initial impact. Demographers and political analysts said the increase seems to indicate that many evacuees are settling into their post-storm homes in ways that they weren't prepared to do immediately after Katrina. But at the same time, they say, it would be a mistake to interpret the filing of a change-of-address form as evidence of a desire to settle elsewhere for good.
"I don't think it's any indication of permanency," said John Logan, a Brown University sociology professor who recently published a study on the demographics of Katrina evacuees. "After four months you're going to need to get your mail."
"This doesn't say anything about the long run," agreed Matt Fellowes, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution, which has been compiling a "Katrina index."
More damage, more moves
Not surprisingly, the figures show that there is a correlation between the level of damage various areas suffered and the number of people filing change of address forms.
On the north shore, where damage was relatively minor, the number of postal customers asking for mail to be sent to an address outside the region grew by about 5,000 from early October to Dec. 31. That was a significant jump percentagewise, but still, only 8 percent of the north shore's pre-Katrina households had requested that their mail be forwarded outside the area by Dec. 31. In the city, a whopping 66 percent had done so.
In the south shore suburbs -- which include hard-hit St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, as well as less-damaged parishes upriver -- the number of households claiming distant new addresses was actually smaller at the end of the year than it was in October.
The new numbers in most ways are in sync with other data cataloging the diaspora. Previous analyses of requests for federal aid have shown that Houston, Dallas and Atlanta are among the most likely destinations for evacuees.
Also, a "quick population survey" undertaken by city officials in early December estimated that New Orleans had 134,400 residents at that time. The Postal Service data, if extrapolated, suggest the city had a population of roughly 145,000 by the end of the year. For the entire region, the data suggest a population of just over 1 million as of Dec. 31, compared to about 1.5 million before the storm.
If anything, demographers say, the postal figures underestimate the number of people who have relocated. Presumably, everyone who filed a change of address form is living elsewhere, but an unknown number -- perhaps 10 percent or 20 percent -- of displaced residents have not bothered to fill out the form.
Where people went
The new figures are the second set released by the Postal Service since Katrina; the previous figures came out Oct. 10, six weeks after the storm. Postal Service officials normally do not release change-of-address data because of privacy concerns, but they decided to do so after Katrina because of the keen public interest in understanding where people have settled.
To protect privacy, the data have been presented in a way that makes it harder to see neighborhood-specific trends. The change-of-address forms are grouped in 3-digit ZIP codes: All of New Orleans, plus a sliver of Jefferson Parish along the river, fall into ZIP code 701. The remainder of Jefferson, plus Plaquemines, St. Bernard and the River Parishes, are in ZIP code 700. The north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, including St. Tammany and other parishes, is in ZIP code 704.
Though the jump in filings away from New Orleans could be a troubling sign, experts said, they should not be used to draw long-term conclusions.
Fellowes, the Brookings Institution researcher, noted that New Orleans statistically has one of the "most rooted" populations of any major American city, meaning that its residents are more likely to stay put than their counterparts elsewhere. In his view, the displaced have a strong desire to return, one that has been evidenced by the strain put on city services, ranging from schools to emergency medical care, by the latest wave of returnees.
"There's a very strong attachment to the city," Fellowes said. "But a lot of these folks are low-income and don't have the resources to come back. The entrance ramp back to the city just hasn't been made available. There are a lot of forces pushing against people's return to New Orleans, and we've really been stunned by how many people have returned."
Tired of limbo
William Frey, a demographer with the University of Michigan who has also been studying the diaspora, said the change of address figures merely suggest that people have resigned themselves to living elsewhere for the near future, not that they've pulled up stakes for good.
"I think what it means is that some people are tired of being in limbo status," Frey said. "Up until Dec. 31, the mayor and all had still not put forth a rebuilding plan, and this shows that people do not feel a comfort zone about coming back yet."
However, he added, "I think it's an indicator they're starting to think more concretely about leaving permanently."
Frey believes the next set of data, set for release in early April, could be more telling. Those numbers will include the surge of returnees who came back in time for the spring semester of classes in the city, and they may also offer a hint of how people are reacting to the city's fits-and-starts recovery.
"What's really key is what happens from here going forward," Frey said. "There's either going to be a major surge coming back, or a increase in moving out. That's going to be the time where we're really going to see what's going on, whether this is just a blip or whether there will be many more."
Because the numbers were compiled Dec. 31, they probably include some, but not all, of the New Orleanians who returned to enroll their children in schools. There is some evidence of it in the figures. They show that nearly 10,000 city residents who had moved away after the storm requested by Dec. 31 that their mail be delivered to a city address -- four times the number in October. The tally includes both people returning to their original city addresses and people relocating in the city.
Another statistic buried in the numbers hints at the same burgeoning return. The numbers of New Orleanians who changed their addresses to medium-distance locations -- for instance, Baton Rouge and Lafayette -- went down. At the same time, the number registering new addresses nearby -- in the city, Jefferson Parish or on the north shore -- grew steeply, suggesting that many people who had left the city had returned perhaps after repairing minor damage to their homes or once schools were set to reopen.
As the Baton Rouge numbers fell, however, the numbers of New Orleanians registering in more distant places -- particularly Houston, Dallas and Atlanta -- climbed sharply. New Orleans households receiving mail in Houston, for instance, shot up by nearly 25 percent, from 22,296 in October to 27,436 at the end of the year. Overall, more than 37,000 households in the region have relocated to Houston.
Suburbanites were much less apt to move such long distances than city folks were, according to both the October and December figures. Again, experts suggested, the reasons may be a combination of factors: In general, damage in the suburbs was much less severe. In addition, suburbanites are more likely to own their homes and have the means to fix them.
"I think the numbers suggest a different pattern of dispersion," Logan said. "There seem to be two categories of people who were displaced: people with resources from the city and suburbs, and another wave from the city with less resources. The two groups are going to different destinations, and they probably have very different rates of return."
Elliott Stonecipher, a demographer and political analyst based in Shreveport, said the numbers lay bare long-term economic patterns in New Orleans: that the higher ground tends to be populated by the more affluent, who in turn tend to be more deeply invested in the city through homes, jobs and businesses.
High areas rebuild
"Historically this has been the pattern with natural disasters in New Orleans," Stonecipher said. "The high areas stay, rebuild and repair. These are the homes of the people who are most deeply invested. They own businesses, they run companies, they're in relatively higher positions at the universities. They're relatively more deeply economically invested, and have always lived in relatively higher income areas and higher ground. I have contended that is your permanent New Orleans population, and you add to it from that base."
Stonecipher said he doesn't overlook the strong emotional ties poorer New Orleanians who have been displaced have to their city. But he noted that some news reports have indicated, anecdotally at least, that some poorer residents have been glad to find better schools and safer neighborhoods in other places. He also doesn't see a lot of signs -- yet, anyway -- that they're going to return in large numbers.
"We all have to be careful to separate an emotional desire to see people return from empirical evidence that they are returning," he said. "I think outsiders are just as likely to come to New Orleans and establish residence as the people who used to live there."
The city's recovery, in Stonecipher's view, is more likely to hinge upon the tens of thousands of New Orleanians who owned homes in ravaged neighborhoods. For the most part, those people have not returned, and the city's future may hang in the balance, he said.
"That's the swing group," he said. "There's no guarantee their problems will get worked out well enough or soon enough for them to return. But we should be putting the focus on them, because their problems are in the cross hairs. The solution can be found in that group of people."
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Gordon Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3347.