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Post-Katrina New Orleans still bleeding people, census shows

BILOXI, Miss. — Early data from the first decennial Census since Hurricane Katrina shows coastal Mississippi suffered less of a population loss than had been estimated, while New Orleans still struggles with a huge loss of people, slightly higher than recent estimates.

Partial 2010 Census data released by Louisiana and Mississippi on Thursday shows New Orleans with almost 344,000 people, 29 percent less than the last count a decade ago, and 11,000 less than the 2009 Census estimate.

Mississippi’s three coastal counties showed combined growth of nearly 2 percent — from 364,000 to 371,000 — since the 2000 Census, and a loss of only 1.5 percent since the storm hit in August 2005. One of the three, Jackson County, saw a nearly 4-percent increase in people since Katrina.

Gov. Haley Barbour said the numbers are promising for Mississippi’s ongoing Katrina recovery.

“We’re still going through the numbers, but initially, it looks like the population along the Gulf Coast is rebounding well,” Barbour said. “It’s a testament to the resilience of the people and the hard work that has occurred thus far. It’s not just the coastline that makes this area such a vibrant part of Mississippi — it’s the people.”

In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu in a statement appeared to downplay the numbers and said the city’s recovery “is in a full gallop.”

“Our progress has always been much bigger than a population number,” Landrieu said. “Billions of dollars of investments are hitting the ground ... Our schools are being transformed into centers of excellence ... Over five years after Hurricane Katrina, our story is one of redemption and resurrection. We are not rebuilding the city we were, but creating the city we want to become, brick by brick and block by block.”

Demographics experts in both states said the deviations from the 2009 estimates were not surprising.

Clifford Holley, interim director of the Center for Population Studies at Ole Miss, said that with Katrina, the BP oil disaster and economic recession, “I’m surprised they got as close as they did.”

“If they could do really precise estimates,” he said, “we wouldn’t have to do a Census.”

But both Holley and Allison Plyer of the New Orleans Community Data Center said they were surprised by one demographic, the booming growth in the states’ Hispanic populations.

Mississippi saw a statewide 106 percent increase in Hispanic population; Louisiana, 78 percent. Katrina-devastated areas saw similar large increases.

Plyer said the construction and cleanup work after the storm brought a large number of transient Hispanic workers to the area, but that work has slowed, “so there’s obviously some growth not related to that, with folks settling here.”

Plyer said it’s unlikely the Hispanic growth in the census number includes large numbers of illegal immigrants, because they would be unlikely to fill out Census forms.

Both areas also saw a similar phenomenon: While people left after the storm’s destruction, they may not have gone very far, because nearby areas saw large population increases.

The three counties just north of the coastal ones in Mississippi saw double-digit growth over the count a decade ago, as did some parishes just outside New Orleans.

Prior to Katrina, coastal Mississippi had been in a boom, spurred by casinos and growth of military installations, the shipbuilding industry and oil-and-gas refineries. New Orleans had been losing population for years.

Louisiana and Mississippi, the two states hardest hit by Katrina, are among the first few states to receive Census data this year, based on their early state election schedules.

Louisiana is expected to lose a House seat in Congress because of the 2010 Census. Mississippi, which lost a House seat after the 2000 Census, is expected to keep its current representation.