Census shows a far less populous New Orleans

By David Mildenberg
Friday, February 4, 2011; 7:23 PM

Five years after Hurricane Katrina drove Lena Johnson from New Orleans, her family's home since the 1930s, she misses its food, music and Mardi Gras. And she never wants to live there again.

"It was like a bird leaving a cage," said Johnson, 60, a New Orleans Chamber of Commerce employee for 24 years. She fled the storm and went to Dallas, recently earning a college degree there.

"I'm in Texas because there's opportunity for me to grow," she said. "Home is still suffering."

The extent of the exodus after the August 2005 disaster can be gauged by new data from the 2010 Census. New Orleans lost 140,845 residents, a drop of 29 percent from 2000. The percentage of black population fell to 60.2 percent from 67.3 percent.

The city will also probably lose a voice in Washington: Louisiana will end up with six congressional seats instead of seven because of the lost population, and state legislators are expected to eliminate one of the city's three congressional districts.

"The city is more affluent, more Latin and a little whiter than it was before Katrina," said Jacques Morial, a community organizer whose father and brother were its first and third black mayors.

The storm, the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, killed at least 1,330 people in Louisiana and Mississippi; 85 percent of New Orleans flooded after levees collapsed. The storm surge extended as far as 10 miles inland, displacing almost 200,000 residents, a congressional report in February 2006 found.

"No major metropolitan area has ever gone through this level of population change in a 10-year period," said Alfred Speer, clerk of the Louisiana House of Representatives and chief legal counsel on the state's redistricting plans.

"If New Orleans loses 100,000 people, that's almost $1 billion in lost federal funds over 10 years given what local governments expect to receive. And if they only lose 100,000," Speer said, referring to the 2010 count, "they probably ought to be celebrating Mardi Gras early."

Mississippi has rebounded more quickly. Its population grew over the decade by 4.3 percent to 2.97 million in 2010, the census data said. Louisiana gained 1.4 percent to 4.53 million.

Mississippi's per-capita income grew 1.7 percent between 2006 and 2008 compared with 0.3 percent in Louisiana, according to the Census Bureau. Since 2003, PACCAR, Nissan Motor and GE Aviation have expanded production and jobs in Mississippi.

Even before the floodwaters, New Orleans struggled. About 131,000 residents, or 28 percent, lived at or below the federal poverty line, compared with 12 percent nationally, 2000 census data showed. The median household income in New Orleans in 2000 was $27,133 compared with the national median of $41,994, according to the census.

Fewer than a quarter of the city's 4,200 public housing units demolished by the storm have been rebuilt, said Morial, who is with the Louisiana Justice Institute, which works on behalf of minorities and the poor. The power of New Orleans's black community has been diluted, he said.

Others say that five years after the storm, a better city is springing from the ruins.

The vitality of New Orleans belies the population decline, said Leslie Jacobs, incoming chairman of Greater New Orleans Inc. The 10-county economic development group's list of prospects exceeds the combined total during the five years before the storm. The schools, many reorganized by the state-run Recovery School District, ranked first for educational reform in a Fordham Institute study in August, Jacobs said.

"This city badly needed fresh blood, and the storm accelerated that process," said Hal Brown, 61, who returned to his home town in 2004 after retiring from Paladin Capital LLC., a Washington-based private equity fund. "The outlook is as bright as any time I've noted, which for me dates to the 1960s," said Brown, who is developing housing projects.

Louisiana's Census data were released this week, along with that for Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia, because their election cycles are among the earliest in the United States.

- Bloomberg News

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