Groups Zero In on Census Counting of Hurricane-Displaced Residents

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A coalition of community and civil rights leaders from the Gulf Coast region is asking Congress to keep close tabs on how the Census Bureau counts Americans displaced almost four years ago by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the latest regional concern about next year's census that has been laid before lawmakers.

Leaders of Northeastern and Midwestern states regularly complain that the census undercounts their populations because of "snowbirds" from their states who spend part of the year in the warmer South. Utah officials argue that the census should count the estimated 13,000 state residents who are temporarily living in other states or overseas as Mormon missionaries.

The arguments are parochial, but the stakes are huge: Population figures compiled during the census will help determine the distribution of at least $300 billion in federal funding to state and local governments for roads, schools, hospitals and other programs.

The census responds with the same message: It will follow the same basic principle that it has since the first head count in 1790, recording people where they are living as of Census Day, which in 2010 will be April 1.

"To do an accurate census, you have to apply the same methodologies across the population, or they may be skewed," said Census Bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner.

Roughly 311,800 people now live in New Orleans, down from the 484,674 who lived there before the storms. City officials are so concerned about a potential undercount that starting next week a staffer will be devoted full time to local census issues, according to a city spokesman.

Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which is leading the Gulf Coast coalition, said hurricane-affected communities there could lose up to $20,000 per person in federal funding.

"Each individual counted or not counted impacts that formula. That's why we're working to make sure the undercount is minimized," he said.

Census employees will hand-deliver questionnaires to several parts of southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in an effort to reach every person returning ahead of the April 1 deadline, said Census Regional Director Gabriel Sanchez.

"Our goal is to get a questionnaire to where everyone lives or could live. In these areas it's a little less clear, which is why we're using this system," he said.

Though the Census Bureau does not plan special accommodations for the region, it has increased its staffing levels from 10 years ago, Sanchez said, adding dozens of staffers to coordinate efforts with civic groups and local companies.

Regardless, some leaders press for more, insisting that the government should allow displaced residents to report their pre-hurricane residences as their location.

"Since there was a special circumstance to speed people out of the city, let's make a special circumstance to have people counted at their pre-Katrina residence," said Trap Bonner, director of the Moving Forward Gulf Coast initiative.

But that would be illegal, Buckner said. "If you're living in Houston or Atlanta, and feel you might go back to New Orleans at some point, that's wonderful. But in terms of counting where you are most of the time, you should put down where you are," he said.

The suggestion is also impractical because census questionnaires have specific geo-coding for each location, meaning respondents cannot write in a different place.

Lawmakers have not committed to special hearings, but plan to get formal updates from the bureau after their August recess, according to Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the census.

"I can assure you that the census is making extraordinary efforts to reach out to displaced persons," he said in a statement.

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