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 who left for Dallas and recently earned a college degree there. “I’m in Texas because there’s opportunity for me to grow. Home is still suffering.”
The extent of the exodus after the August 2005 disaster can be gauged by 2010 Census data released yesterday. 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 loss in New Orleans translates into one fewer congressional seat for Louisiana -- now six instead of seven.
“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.
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 Inc., Nissan Motor Co. 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 to the national median of $41,994, according to the census.
First Detailed Look
Census data released yesterday provide the first detailed look at changes in state population demographics since 2000. Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia were the first to receive census figures because their election cycles are among the earliest in the U.S. State data will be released through March 31 and the numbers will be used for drawing voting districts.
“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.”
Many poor residents have stayed away because 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 -- and weeks before the March 8 culmination of carnival season -- a better city is springing from the ruins.
New Orleans’ vitality 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 hometown in 2004 after retiring from Paladin Capital LLC., a Washington D.C.-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.
Katrina’s devastation prompted $45 billion in federal investment, said Greg Rigamer, chief executive officer of GCR, a New Orleans consulting firm that studied the storm’s aftermath. A $2.5 billion medical complex in the Mid-City neighborhood with hospitals planned by the Veterans Administration and Louisiana State University will be a job-generator, he said.
“So much got destroyed in Katrina and so much was broken before the hurricane that it didn’t make sense to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said Jacobs of Greater New Orleans Inc. “It was a very moribund, staid city before Katrina.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu cooperates with state and federal officials better than his predecessor, Ray Nagin, Brown said. Landrieu, who is white, received 64 percent of the black vote in last February’s election, Rigamer said.
“Now that we have sensible leadership in city hall, the population growth in New Orleans will accelerate,” Brown said.
The storm hurt New Orleans’ political influence, with Republican state legislators likely to eliminate one of the three congressional districts that include sections of the metro area, Rigamer said. Having more than 140,000 fewer citizens could cost Orleans Parish, which encompasses the city, three or more of its 10 state representatives, Speer said.
“The big story politically is the shift in power,” said Kirby Goidel, an associate political science professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
While Census Bureau employees sought responses from every address in New Orleans, Morial expects the city to be one of the most undercounted because so many residents have unconventional living arrangements. His mother, Sybil, 76, moved to Baton Rouge after Katrina to be near her two daughters and four grandchildren. While she visits New Orleans two or three times a week, only seven families have returned to her east-side neighborhood, which he said retains dozens of vacant lots and boarded-up homes.
Population statistics alone don’t account for how many unemployed and poor residents left, while hundreds of young teachers, artists and lawyers moved to the city after Katrina, said Tom Piazza, a city resident and author of “Why New Orleans Matters” and “City of Refuge.”
“If you are attuned to cultural expression, there is no more exciting place in the continental United States,” he said. “The people who’ve had the hardest time getting back to New Orleans are those who had the fewest resources.”
Johnson, the Katrina refugee in Dallas, was born in New Orleans’s French Quarter and started working at 13 at a restaurant where her parents were chefs. Her brother, Darrell Johnson, was a tap dancer and singer who was grand marshal of New Orleans JazzFest parades in the mid-1970s. She recalls helping her aunt work for months on her carnival Indian costume.
“I miss Mardi Gras,” she said. “That was part of the fabric of being a citizen.”
Texas, however, provided opportunities the Crescent City didn’t. After working for a call-center company, she received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in December from the University of North Texas at Dallas and is pursuing a second degree.
“In New Orleans people walk by and say ‘hi,’ and even if you don’t know the person, it gives you a good feeling,” Johnson said. “In Dallas, you say ‘good morning’ and people walk past you like they don’t want to know you.”