Katrina Displaced 400,000, Study Says

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 400,000 people from the New Orleans area and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, according to a Census Bureau report to be released today, one of the most comprehensive looks at the hurricane-induced migration.

The figures show that the New Orleans metropolitan area, and not just the city, remains vastly shrunken in population four months after the storm, having lost 378,000 people, and that those who remained were more prosperous and were far more likely to be white.

Whereas the population of the New Orleans region was 54 percent non-Hispanic white before the storm, that proportion had grown to 68 percent in the months after the storm, the figures show.

"We knew the city was becoming whiter and less poor, but now we know the entire New Orleans region was," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the new figures. "This is the first real numbers on this. Everything else has been guesswork."

The figures show that the Gulfport-Biloxi region lost 41,000 people from before Katrina to January, ranking it second among metropolitan areas for population loss.

But in contrast to the New Orleans region, the Mississippi coast has become less white, the figures show. The proportion of non-Hispanic blacks in Mississippi's coastal counties has risen from 17 percent to 27 percent.

Exactly how many people have returned to the hurricane-ravaged areas and who they are has been a matter of intense speculation among public officials and businesses planning the rebuilding effort.

The new figures will not end the debate, however.

Census officials warned that some of the figures are subject to larger than normal margins of error and, moreover, that the figures are already at least five months old.

"The population estimates were from back in January, and back then the situation was a lot more volatile," said David Bowman, a researcher for the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

His estimates suggest that the population of New Orleans has grown from 156,000 in January to 192,000 in May. About 450,000 people lived there before Katrina.

The recovery has been far slower than many had expected, and the new figures only underscored the vast challenges ahead.

"Those who sit and speculate that the city will have 350,000 people next year are doing it on certain innate beliefs -- that people want to return, that there will be jobs," said Rob Couhig, one of the leaders of a rebuilding commission arranged by Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

Couhig said he expects that many who have left will never return.

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