No one disputes that Katrina will reduce the population of the New Orleans area, but just how much is unclear
Sunday, October 23, 2005
By Kate MoranEast Jefferson bureau
As residents stream back into New Orleans and its suburbs, the question that rolls off every tongue -- right after "How'd you do in the storm?" -- is whether far-flung friends and neighbors also will return or whether the region has been permanently shrunk in the wash.
Mayor Ray Nagin predicted a month ago that New Orleans would be reborn as a city of 250,000 people, about half its pre-Hurricane Katrina population, and interviews with a dozen scholars last week also paint a picture of a city considerably less populous than in its antediluvian days.
History is replete with examples of places -- including San Francisco and Dade County, Fla. -- that were shattered by natural disasters but bounced back stronger and even more populous than before. But scholars say New Orleans, which has steadily lost population for 45 years, will take longer than other cities to recover because homes and businesses steeped in Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters for so long, and because its residents remain concerned about the viability of the levees designed to protect it.
They emphasize, however, that the region's watery geography alone does not decide its fate. They say the climate set by government at all levels in the next few months will be a major factor that influences how many of the displaced will return.
Though the public tends to think that evacuees will be guided back by an internal compass, a sense of history or attachment to place, demographers, sociologists and economists say many people will settle elsewhere unless the government provides incentives for contractors to build low-cost housing.
Secondarily, they say, the government must set a tone of inclusion when planning the region's future, and help unemployed people get a slice of the construction jobs now going to out-of-state workers.
"The tendency is to try to explain things on the individual level, to ask whether the evacuee in Arkansas is going to return or not," said Benigno Aguirre, a faculty member at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. "But the reality is that it is a collective dynamic going on: the decision-making of government officials, the use of the land and the type of work you make available to people. That is a political and a cultural factor.
"The fundamental factor we need to watch is how the recovery is going to take place," Aguirre said. "What programs will the government put in place to allow for democratic participation among the people of New Orleans who were victimized? If you have the right policies, New Orleans could be a transformed place. Disasters are an opportunity to rebuild in ways that are stronger and more resilient than before."
Number displaced unknown
Current population estimates for the New Orleans area are hard to come by.
The first figures that show how many residents remain dislodged from the metro area will surface in early November, when the federal Census Bureau and the Department of Labor will release unemployment numbers that reflect damage done by the hurricane. In August, the Census Bureau will produce a more comprehensive look at the storm diaspora.
Until then, only anecdotal evidence and partial data, at times inconsistent, is available to divine how many residents have begun to repopulate the city and surrounding parishes, and how many will or will not return:
-- St. Bernard Parish, which Katrina flooded wall to wall, is largely empty, as is lower Plaquemines Parish. Together, the two parishes were home to 91,400 people in the 2000 census.
But in Jefferson Parish, Emergency Management Director Walter Maestri said 90 percent of the 448,000 residents have returned, based on enrollment in schools, the volume of calls to parish offices and the number of requests for trailers.
-- Traffic in some places, especially East Jefferson and St. Tammany Parish, is thick as bisque. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Commission, for example, has reported volume is up 41 percent from pre-Katrina levels.
But volume on the Crescent City Connection is down about the same percentage.
Whether up or down, some of the current congestion is likely temporary because many contractors, insurance adjusters and government workers have come to the region.
-- Enrollment in St. Tammany public schools, which reopened Oct. 3, is about 90 percent of its former level.
-- Jefferson public schools, which reopened the same day, have enrolled just 74 percent of their pre-Katrina numbers. But Catholic schools in Jefferson have already exceeded their previous enrollment.
-- The U.S. Postal Service said Thursday that 138,026 households from the 701 ZIP codes, which include the city of New Orleans and a small part of East Jefferson, are still forwarding their mail to a new address. Based on the 2000 census, that represents about two-thirds of the population.
The Postal Service, however, says many more customers have not completed forms for address changes even though they remain away from their homes.
-- Two weeks ago, USA Today conducted a telephone survey showing that 40 percent of evacuees from New Orleans did not intend to return to the city. But the poll questioned only 1,510 people, and they were from all over Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who has followed New Orleans population trends, thinks that figure is exaggerated. Because the city was home to such a strong culture, with its own culinary and musical traditions and families that have lived here for generations, he said, all but 20 percent will come back.
Whatever the rate of return, it will not be distributed equally across the demographic spectrum, Frey and other scholars say.
Homeowners are more likely to come back than renters because they have a greater economic stake in their property. Young professionals, who have skills they can tote to another city, are less likely to come back than older business people with an established clientele. Poor and elderly people, many of whom lacked the resources to evacuate in the first place, could have trouble paying for the journey home.
"Most likely not to come back are the young, educated people who will not have the patience for waiting things out," Frey said.
Before the storm, New Orleans had a relatively static population. The 2000 census found that 77 percent of its residents were born in Louisiana and that 57 percent lived in the same house they did five years before. Nationally, only 60 percent of people lived in the state where they were born, 54.1 percent in the same house as five years earlier.
The least mobile segment of New Orleans was the poor, who were quarantined by a substandard school system and, perversely, by the strong family networks that tended to provide opportunity where public education and the static economy could not, Frey said.
Opportunity to improve
Many local planners say the hurricane could become an unlikely blessing for the people who were stuck in the city and might find better schools or higher-paying jobs in places such as Houston or Chicago.
"Moving is traumatic, especially in this case, but if you don't have much it could be a good thing," said Ed Durabb, the Jefferson Parish planning director. "Sometimes a change of scenery can get you out of a hole. Many people were on public assistance here. These folks had a horrible education system. Someplace else they might not be handicapped by a school system in disarray."
But some are wary that New Orleans could turn into a whitewashed, gentrified city bereft of its unique mix of cultures and classes living elbow to elbow. Orleans Parish public schools, where more than 90 percent of students before Katrina were black, have no plans to reopen any east bank campuses before the summer of 2006, leaving parents to look elsewhere for places to educate their children.
Kristina Ford, the former New Orleans planning director, contrasted the city with places that understand diversity through the cold calculation of affirmative action.
"Because of the way we lived jumbled up, black people next to Creole next to Honduran, we were the real thing," she said. "We were diverse. Part of this is because we all knew life is so provisional. Therefore, you cut everybody a little slack. You might think, 'I wouldn't do that, but go ahead on.'
"I hope it retains that same diversity, because to me it was a beacon that was out there for what we are trying to achieve in this big, jumbled-up society."
Ford, now a professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, and other planners say New Orleans should fold people of all income levels into the reconstituted city. It does not, however, have to do that by reconstructing the Lower 9th Ward and other areas where the poor, largely black population was isolated before the storm. Instead, they say, the city should try to sprinkle affordable housing in neighborhoods less prone to flooding.
"Rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward does not mean that we have to go back and rebuild the blocks exactly as they were. What it means is that the families and the community need to be held together," Ford said. "This is the most difficult and interesting problem we have seen. We know what we want. It will take careful physical and cultural planning to figure out how to make it come back."
Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University, said people with lower incomes return to devastated areas slowly because they are less likely to own homes and are therefore at the whim of landlords. If they do own homes, they are less likely to have adequate insurance or to qualify for a loan from the Small Business Administration.
To enable them to come back, Peacock said, the government must move quickly to replace affordable units splintered by the storm. While funding or incentives for the private market will have to come from agencies such as the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Peacock said charities such as Habitat for Humanity also have a role in revamping the housing stock.
"Housing markets do absolutely extraordinary things in terms of helping rebuild, but markets systematically fail when it comes to affordable, low-cost housing," he said. "This is a prime case where local, state and federal governments need to be working together to ensure a broad spectrum of housing comes back. It is a wonderful opportunity to have mixed housing, so we don't have concentrated areas of poverty, but it won't happen if the market is left to solve all the problems."
Overall, demographers predict that Katrina will accelerate the population decline that plagued the region well before the storm.
By the 2000 census, New Orleans had withered to 485,000 people from its peak of 627,000 in 1960. Louisiana has been shrinking as well; between 1995 and 2000, it was the only state in the country to lose population.
Joachim Singelmann, director of the Louisiana Population Data Center at Louisiana State University, said the state already was on course to lose a congressional seat by 2020. Since the hurricane cast out so many residents, that loss could come as soon as 2010, leaving Louisiana with less clout in Washington to secure money for projects that would benefit residents trying to rebuild.
Singelmann concurred with Nagin's estimate that New Orleans would lose about 200,000 residents for the next few years, though he said numbers ultimately hinge on the speed of the rebuilding and whether affordable housing becomes available. West Jefferson, St. Charles Parish and St. Tammany Parish have vacant land on which additional housing could be built, so their populations could continue to grow as they have in recent decades. Indeed, Jefferson officials are touting their parish as the economic recovery hub for the region. But rebuilding in St. Bernard, Plaquemines and sections of New Orleans with the worst flooding will take longer.
In that respect, scholars say, the New Orleans area is unlikely to mirror the recovery of south Florida after Hurricane Andrew plowed into Dade County in 1992. That storm turned thousands of homes into matchsticks and 353,300 people into evacuees. At the time, demographers pegged it as the largest population displacement in U.S. history.
One month later, only 23 percent of the residents who fled southern Dade had returned to their houses. Six months afterward, 61 percent had made the homecoming.
But within five years, Homestead and Florida City, the cities that sustained the heaviest damage, had plumped up to their pre-hurricane size.
Yet the flooding that accompanied Katrina will make that kind of recovery a much more distant, if attainable, goal for the New Orleans area.
"A flood is much more difficult to deal with than wind," said Betty Hearn Morrow, a sociologist and professor emeritus at Florida International University. "You can have part of your house fallen in, but you can still recover a lot of your belongings from it. New Orleans will never be the same, that's no question. My guess is that an awful lot of people may not come back."
Also complicating recovery is the breadth of the Katrina diaspora.
When Andrew swept in, most residents of Dade County evacuated into nearby Broward County, making their return home less of an odyssey. Schools opened within two weeks, even with holes in the roofs, to restore a sense of normalcy for students and families. Scholars from the area say businesses were not decimated to the extent they were by Katrina, allowing the local economy to revive relatively quickly.
"You have various things drawing people back -- family, friends, culture, history -- but with the passage of time, people start to become established in the places where they relocated. I think that will tend to create a higher proportion that will not return than we have typically seen in Florida," said Stanley Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.
Onus on government
Smith, who produced extensive studies of the demographic effects of Hurricane Andrew, predicts that towns damaged by Katrina in Mississippi and Alabama would follow the patterns laid out in Florida, suffering an immediate population drain but eventually recovering their pre-hurricane size.
"For New Orleans, I think that's less likely to happen because of the physical layout of the city and the damage to the pumps and levees, the fact that thousands of homes have been sitting in water and might have to be destroyed," he said.
But Smith, echoing other scholars, said the future of the city largely rests in the hands of the government.
"I think the impact of government decisions is going to be much greater in New Orleans than it has been in other places hurricanes have hit," he said. "That relates to the fact that it is a city below sea level surrounded by water. To what extent will the levees be strengthened? What areas within the city will be rebuilt? Will some areas be dredged out and become wetlands, and others built up so that they are at a higher elevation? What sorts of subsidies might be available for housing? A lot of people did not have flood insurance. They will be hit much harder economically than in most other storms where a lot of the damage is done by wind.
"I don't think I could even make a prediction about numbers, but I would be surprised if New Orleans got back to its pre-hurricane population for many, many years," Smith said.
These days, even Nagin is hesitant to pin down a potential population figure. When asked last week if he stands by the 250,000 figure he gave Sept. 21, the mayor's office issued this statement:
"Mayor Nagin's vision involves a thriving city with better-paying jobs for citizens, revitalized neighborhoods and a robust business sector. Katrina has forced many people to make life-altering decisions on a day-by-day basis. While the city cannot speculate about the future size of New Orleans, officials at every level are working to bring New Orleans back and build a better city for everyone to call home."
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Kate Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 717-7709.