Louisiana’s Katrina-Hit Areas Among Fastest-Growing Counties

March 21, 2008

New Orleans and nearby St. Bernard Parish, areas that suffered huge population losses after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, are regaining residents so fast that they topped the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of fastest-growing counties last year.

Even so, some New Orleans officials aren’t happy about the figures, saying they are too low and out of date.

In St. Bernard, the New Orleans suburb virtually wiped out by the storm and levee breaches, the population grew by 42.9 percent, nearly 6,000 people, to an estimated 19,826 people from July 1, 2006 to July 1, 2007. The population of Orleans Parish, which comprises the city of New Orleans, grew by 13.8 percent — from 210,198 to an estimated 239,124, according to a Census Bureau report on the year-to-year data.

New Orleans’ population plummeted from nearly 454,000 people in July 2005, the month before Katrina hit and scattered hundreds of thousands of people along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. St. Bernard was classified as the nation’s fastest-losing county in 2006, falling from 64,683 people in July 2005 to 13,875 in July 2006.

It’s not clear how long the growth will last or at what rate. While local officials say federal money to repair public infrastructure has started flowing more freely, allowing them to begin implementing rebuilding plans in earnest, the pace of recovery has been frustrating for many residents, and people are still deciding whether to return or stay.

New Orleans officials said they believe the newest Census figures are too low; estimates on population have varied widely since Katrina. One estimate, based on postal service data, put New Orleans’ population at two-thirds of pre-Katrina levels last July, higher than the Census estimate that took into account such factors as births and deaths and tax-filing and change-of-address data. Another, based on utility hookups and activity, put the city’s July 2007 population at 273,598, and at just over 300,000 earlier this year.

Caroline Leung, a research analyst at Louisiana Tech, said her estimate of the city’s population for the state tracked close to the census bureau’s, while her estimate for St. Bernard’s was higher. She said the 2010 Census should offer the clearest picture of the post-Katrina landscape. Greg Harper, a demographer for the census bureau, agrees.

While he said the bureau spent considerable time on its estimate and used additional data in an effort to be as accurate as possible, “it’s very hard to say at this point what is the truth for something so huge and outside our normal processing system.”

City leaders, who had obtained the Census estimates before their formal public release, said they intended to challenge the New Orleans figure, which has implications for the distribution of certain grant dollars.

Ed Blakely, New Orleans’ recovery chief, said the fact the estimates are months old also does no favors for the city, which is trying to attract new investments as it continues to rebuild. “This comes at a very unfortunate time,” he said, calling it confusing and “dispiriting to have numbers come out that are that old.”

Elsewhere, the Census reported the South had 70 of the nation’s 100 fastest-growing counties from July 2006 to July 2007, with more than one-third of those either in Georgia or Texas. Harper said that’s the continuation of a growth trend seen in the South, which has a large number of counties, and the West.

Half of the top 10 biggest gainers numbers wise were in Texas, though Maricopa County, Ariz., topped that category, adding 102,000 people, the Census reported. Maricopa, home to Phoenix, also grew the most from April 1, 2000, to July 1, 2007, adding 808,000 people to bring its population to nearly 3.9 million.

Los Angeles County, Calif., in spite of losing about 2,000 people over the year, remained the most populous county, with 9.9 million people in July 2007.

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