Thursday, August 24, 2006

Death By Demography

What are we to make of all these population numbers? Are people coming home or not? Social scientists are strugging to define the longterm outcome of the Katrina diaspora, to determine how many of the displaced may never return, to puzzle out what communities will gain in the long term what New Orleans may lose. For the consumer, the news reports are contradictory and confusing.

First the Times-Picayune gave us this bleak assessment of the city's population on Aug. 8, estimating as few as 171,000 Orleanians have returned based on Post Office statistics dating to early June. Then on Aug. 23, we get Entergy's rosier assessment promoted from a page 3 footnote in the earlier story to the lead number in the story Entergy data shed light on N.O.'s population.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. "I still think there are a lot of electric meters for people who are not full-time residents," [Shreveport demographer Elliott Stonecipher] said. "We need to be sensitive about what is our daytime versus our permanent population."

My first question is, why did the Picayune rush back to report a story they had already buried on Aug. 8? One expects a certain level of boosterism in a city's newspaper, and the bright spots are hard to find amidst the clouds of diesal exhaust from the rubble trucks.

And what about those trucks? One thing I constantly notice in Mid-City is the continuing apperance of new refrigerators and other appliaces, signs that houses abandoned until now are being gutted. Is this just the city's deadline or is it a sign of continuing progress?

We get conflicting stories and no clear answers. Each of us is forced to look around, and make our own assessment, just as the decision to stay, return or leave is an individual decision influenced by so many unique factors.

The Houma Daily Courier story Katrina accelerated the speed of people leaving Louisiana, N.O. examines the question, and offers some debate on where those who do return may land. Not the New Orleans area is the answer they pull from the crystal ball.

While good data is hard to come by, there is a trend demographers are well aware of: Louisiana was hemorrhaging residents prior to last year’s hurricane season. Based on the most recent census, 75,000 more people moved out of Louisiana than into it from 1995 to 2000. New Orleans alone lost more than 47,000 people during the same period.
[Shreveport-based demographer and political analyst Elliot] Stonecipher said the storms have placed this historical trend into hyper-drive. Additionally, recent reports have used postal records to show the wave of people moving back into New Orleans has slowed, and Stonecipher believes a counter-wave of people moving out is about to occur.
"We don’t want to believe that any of the people that stayed are going to leave, but they are," he said. "They’re going to leave because the schools didn’t work out. They’re going to leave because of Entergy. They’re going to leave because of the mayor’s race and state politics. They are fed up, and they do not want to wait anymore."

The last bleak assessment is based on nothing cited in the story beyond Stonecipher's gut telling him that we are at a tipping point. The story suggests there is data indicating people who stayed or returned are ready to leave, but it offers no evidence, and I have no insight into Stonecipher's motivation. I'm all in betting against him, so I have my own prejudices. My own belief is that some areas of southeast Louisiana are going to gain population from New Orleans. People who can't ( or won't) come home to the city may find enough of the Louisiana lifestyle in Baton Rouge or Houma or Lafayette.

Local urban planner and political commentator Gerg Rigamer had a more upbeat take on WWL-AM drive time radio on Thursday. He suggests the population of Orleans Parish is in fact at 50% or better, and his opinion is a ray of hope of Stonecipher's gloom. He told WWL that there are more people who want to come in than [those] who cant to move out. The constraint is lack of available housing. The people who are home now are those who have a place to live. Until the housing crisis is resolved, more people simply can not come home.

Who is right, Rigamer or Stonecipher? August is an ugly time here, with the anniversary upon us and the continuing parade of bad news--Entergy rates staying skyhigh, and perhaps going higher, the state Recovery District schools in disarray-- weighs heavily on everyone. Are some people giving up on returning, or giving up and leaving? Some certainly are, and no one should be surprised when a year later only a trickle federal money has to come to the actual survivors of the storm and the the flood?

I hear that fatalism in on-line forums such as the NOLA.Com Moving To New Orleans chat room , but I suspect much of that comes from people who gave up long ago, and sit in their comfortable brick boxes on the northshore or in the river parishes and try to tear New Orleans down, to vindicate their own decision to flee the city. I do not hear that buzz on the street. For every anecdotal story of someone giving up, I meet someone on the street who has moved to New Orleans post-Flood. As fast as the debris teams can clear Mid-City, a new house is started and new piles appear.

The story you will miss if you read the Picayune online is the picture of recovery neighborhood by neighborhood that Wednesday's online graphic gives. The population of New Orleans East, measured by Entergy, is off 75 to 85%. Gentilly and Lakeview both remain depopulated by 75%. Every area has lost population, even Algiers is off 6%. There is a steady return of people, and the most devestated areas showed a real increase in meters since March, but the population remains well below 50%.

The sliver is safe, with all areas showing well over 50% population return. Where I live in Mid-City is a bit more dicey at 42%, but there was a vast population of renters, people for whom the return home is made more difficult by no real compensation for their losses, no ready assistance for landlords, and skyrocketing rents. The homeowners here are clearly trying to come back. But in Broadmoor and the Ninth Ward, in the outlying areas of Lakeview, Gentilly and New Oreans East, the return figures approaching the one year mark are bleak, 25% or less.

That's the real question I read in the storyLocal inertia dooming recovery, report says, in which Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana criticize the city for its lack of a plan. Even as we jump through every flaming hoop they put it front of us, the question keeps coming back: what is the plan?

The real answer is is again a question the Picayune and other media do not ask, or at least to not publish the answer to: what do they mean by a plan? The answer is hinted at in the stories about demographics, particularly in the graphic in today's Picayune story about population numbers, the answer to the question that's been taboo since the firestorm around the Bring New Orleans Back report. What areas may not make it because not enough people are coming home this year?

The report recognizes the challenges, citing uncertinties about flood elevation rules, the failure of the private insurance system, and the failure of the federal government to get even partial compensation into the hands of the people who need it to rebuld. But it continues to restate the question that's been stashed away since the mayor's commission first asked it.

"Without clear guidelines from community leaders about what areas will be rebuilt and when, many residents put off making a decision about whether to return, and the longer the delay, the more likely they are to stay where they are. That, in turn, has consequences for any community's long-term survival," according to Dr. Richard Nathan, co-director of the Rockefeller Institute.

Are we at a tipping point, a place where the specter of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's recommendation that neighborhoods prove their viability comes back to haunt us? The flow of recovery money from LRA has been so slow to start that many of the worst neighborhoods have missed the chance to get home before the school year starts, which both demographers agree is an important milestone. Stonecipher says families that put their children in school this fall elsewhere may never return. I suspect that those who want to come home will, even if they have to move their children midyear. Rigamer points to the slowly opening spigot of LRA money, and argues that there will be a continued rise in population through year's end as people finally get some government compensation to help them rebuild.

Even with Rigamer's optimism, with the East, Gentilly and Lakeview still at around one-quarter of their pre-storm population, it may be time to revist the hard question, the one many of us hoped Mayor Nagin would rise to and confront once he was safely re-elected: can those outlying and badly flooded neighborhoods be saved? Is it time to start encouraging people to move into core city neighborhoods such as Broadmoor and Mid-City, where return remains below 50% but are still far ahead of the outlying suburbs? Should the city and Entergy be investing scare resource we really can't afford to restore services in neighborhoods that are a ghost of their former selves?

At the risk of angering good friends of mine who live in these places, its time we started to have this discussion, including how we might fully buy out people who've made the investment to return to places that prove unsustainable. We are now a city of half its former size. Any return to something approaching half a million citizens is in the distant future, and we need to start coming to terms with the reality around us.

Excellent post, Markus. My patch of unflooded Uptown is experiencing a population explosion. Folks from NO East and Lakeview are moving here in droves.
Compelling post...but some factors should be considered when opening the discussion to "abandon" neighborhoods. For example, Gentilly. Gentilly is an enormous district in land area, and contains some of both the highest and the lowest land within the city limits. Do you attempt to convince the people who are back in their homes in Gentilly Terrace (roughly 10 feet above sea level), with electricity, phone service, gas, cable, that because few folks are moving back into their homes in the "bowl" area between Filmore and Leon C. Simon so far that they should think about moving to Uptown because it's "stretching our ability to provide them services"? They've already got the services infrastructure in place, and the whole "some neighborhoods will be too scattered to provide police and fire protection to" deal is a little overblown when you consider that Sheriff's departments across the state provide service to entire rural parishes, etc. How about Lake Oaks out near UNO? Didn't flood...high ground. Do we abandon it because it doesn't fit into some folks' idea of a "retrenched" New Orleans footprint?

And what of UNO...and SUNO...and Dillard...and the Baptist Theological Seminary? All located in Gentilly, and all with students and faculty needing housing, services, etc.
i wish i could have said it that well puddinhead. thanks.
And the discussion begins.

First, no, it makes no sense to evacuate people from ridges. Empty basins, however, have to be an open question. Much of UNO sits on high lakefront lake. SUNO and the BTS are trickier questions.

I lived in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota for much of the last 10 years. I understand people can live in thinly populated areas, if they have heavily subsidized (through federal power groups) utilities, use bottled and not city gas, are willing to live with volunteer fire and EMS service, etc. Is Gentilly and the East ready to accept those terms?

As I asked in the post below back in February, are you ready to deliver that baby?
It's also as well to remember that Greg Rigamer is a politically connected guy, who has contracts with the City and most of the major public agencies. His estimates are being done for Nagin and seem inflated to me.
Great post.
My question is: does it make sense to measure the viability of a city via body count?
At a population of 250000 to 300000 New Orleans is a wonderfully viable place economically with a port, tourism, and universities as a base, and other possible developments along the way.
Maybe I'm missing the point but why is the measure simply the raw population. Shouldn't the measure be the economic viability of the city?
There is no problem with repopulating Gentilly, Lakeview or the upper 9th Ward provided the levees do their job.

There are enough dots to connect these communities to make this thing work. Again, even with (properly constructed) Cat 3 levees, the above neighborhoods are "probably" OK if a 3 and maybe even if a 4 comes through.

New Orleans East is a bit murkier. Lower 9th and St. Bernard; I have grave concerns but it's not my life, my home or my heart and soul. This is where emotion gets in the way of sensibility.

However, the faster MrGo becomes a memory, the faster my confidence returns for those areas.

City services will not be a stretch for Gentilly. It's (too) in the middle of life for that to happen.

Same for Lake Terrace and of course, Lakeview.

When the money begins to flow in, you are going to gasp at the activity in these areas (Lakeview & Gentilly) that is currently cued for action.

I suppose I just laid out a smaller footprint however, let's remember, the Saints are all but sold out and the footprint WILL grow to include Gentilly and to Lakeview, two productive communities of lower middle to upper middle class folks who will fuel the recovery of New Orleans not only with their money, but their much needed talents and yep; even buy some of them Saints’ football tickets…if they get in line early next year.
Don't give up on Lakeview yet. We have neighbors who've lived Uptown since October who are now moving home. Had to get the upstairs livable, now they'll be upstairs while repairing the downstairs. We're taking baby steps, but moving forward. People like us are also trying to get rental units up and running.
I haven't given up on Lakeview, Mrs. R (if I've guessed who you are right; if I have you are among the people I sorely wish not to offend.) But I am begining to wonder when the hard decisions will be made, and by whom, and on what data. One thing I would like to see is a list of all of the building permits issues by the city plugged into a geographical information system. I think that might tell us more clearly where people are coming back, and where they are not. Sometime soon the city will have to begin to make hard decisions about facilities like the Robert E. Smith Library, the Robert E. Lee Boulevard fire station, etc. And the entire city will demand that new pumping stations be built at the mouths of the canals, regardless of what the people north of Robert E. Lee think about having to look at them. I spoke with a man from Gentilly (which I worry about much more than Lakeview) yesterday afternoon, who worries about what to do with his house still. His is not gutted yet, but it is cleaned out and he mows the grass, even though he is elderly and has to come from Picayune, MS to do it. He looks around at untouched houses, or those where the grass has not been cut in months, and wonders if its worth his while to rebuild there. Looking around Paris Avenue yesterday, the neighborhood remains very spotty. I think the city government will be forced into some decisions soon by outside forces who demand it as the prce of recovery money. I just want them to be made sensibly, and the people who have come back fully compensated (not of this 150,000 minus insurance crap) if it is the collective decision that they need to move on. Or they can stay, realizing that they have chosen to live in what will soon be a countryside dotted with empty slabs and sandy spots where neighbors once stood. Nobody should be told they cannot live in place X; but if the the people of place X only meet rural density, they should expect rural services.
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