There had never been an exodus of its scale in the nation’s history.
Nearly overnight, waters pouring through failed levees left nearly all of New Orleans uninhabitable and left its residents scattered across the United States.
The question was raised almost immediately: What would the recovered region look like and who would live there?
The answer has played out through the individual decisions of hundreds of thousands of residents who fought to return home to the New Orleans region; workers who settled down in the area after years of rebuilding it after Hurricane Katrina; and newcomers attracted by the rediscovered allure of a city that has been uniquely fixed in the national spotlight.
The recovery has wrought substantial, perhaps permanent, shifts in the region, leaving New Orleans smaller and whiter even as its suburbs have become increasingly diverse. And it has posed unresolved questions about who benefited and who was left behind by a recovery that also led to a dramatic drop in the city’s African-American population.
The first official estimates by the Census Bureau, in a special report from January 2006, showed Orleans Parish’s population then was one-third as large as it had been in 2000, with more than 316,000 residents unable to return. That left New Orleans as a city of about 158,400 residents, the smallest it had been since before the Civil War.
Another 84,000 people were gone from the suburbs, with catastrophically damaged St. Bernard Parish responsible for the bulk of the exodus. There, only 5 percent of the pre-Katrina population of 65,600 had returned. Other suburban parishes with relatively light damage saw modest decreases, while St. Tammany and St. Charles parishes saw increases as those who could not go home elsewhere sought refuge.
The numbers climbed in the years that followed, dramatically at first. While growth slowed over time as most people either moved back or decided to settle where they were, the numbers are still inching upward.
The city grew by 1.4 percent last year, according to Census Bureau estimates, giving it a total population of about 384,320. That’s roughly 79 percent of its size in 2000, the last full head count before the storm, and thus the benchmark used by many demographers.
Considering that New Orleans had suffered decades of population decline before Katrina, the continuing growth is an optimistic sign for the region, said Allison Plyer, executive director and chief demographer for The Data Center.
“Basically, a metro has two options,” Plyer said. “You can either grow jobs and grow population, or you can lose jobs and lose population.”
Black residents slow to return
While it’s growing, New Orleans’ population has a much different makeup than it had before the storm.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the storm is the severe contraction of New Orleans’ black community, now nearly 97,000 residents smaller than it was before Katrina. While the community is growing in raw numbers — the latest census estimates suggest there were almost 2,100 more black residents in 2014 than in 2013 — it is slowly shrinking as a portion of the city’s total population.
Before the storm, more than two out of every three residents in the city were black, a share that dropped to just below 60 percent last year. The declining proportion of black residents is a product of more rapid growth in the size of other racial groups.
While the city’s white population is still about 9,000 people short of its pre-Katrina total, it now makes up a larger share of a smaller city. About 31 percent of the population is now white, compared with about a quarter of the city before the storm.
Other trends in the region — including the growth of the Hispanic population, larger minority communities in the suburbs and a larger proportion of young, childless residents in the cities — may have been accelerated by the storm but are in line with national trends, Plyer said.
The loss of a significant portion of the city’s black population, however, is directly attributable to the storm and its aftermath.
The possibility that the storm would upend the city’s demographics was a major concern in the months after Katrina, as low-income families, most of them African-American, sought to return to areas that had endured some of the worst flooding. Repeated references to the city as a “blank slate” and comments by some local and national figures that suggested or outright stated that the city was better off without its poorer residents only fanned the flames.
Those concerns were given their most infamous airing just four months after Katrina, when Mayor Ray Nagin called on the city’s African-American population to come home, suggesting in the process that many white people would prefer they not.
“It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans,” Nagin said in speech commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. “And I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.”
For the most part, wealthier New Orleanians — who were disproportionately white — had enough insurance or other resources to help them get back into their houses. And, eventually, they could rely on the state’s Road Home program, which based its awards on the value of a destroyed home rather than the cost to replace it.
By contrast, most of the city’s public housing complexes — whose residents were almost all black — were shut down. A lawsuit brought against Road Home accused the program of discriminating against black homeowners because their pre-Katrina homes were generally worth less than those of whites and they therefore received less money, even though the homes might cost just as much to rebuild. The suit was settled for $62 million in 2011.
“There were failures on many levels to account for housing equity, and therefore many of the city’s most vulnerable residents were excluded from the opportunity to return to their communities,” said Cashuana Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
‘Smaller, whiter and wealthier’
The poverty and income inequality that dogged the city before the storm also had a major impact on the way it recovered. In the years after Katrina, New Orleans was often referred to as “smaller, whiter and wealthier” — a reflection of who was able to rebuild the soonest.
By 2007, the poverty rate in New Orleans had dipped to 21 percent — 7 percentage points lower than it had been before the storm — but the rate has since risen to be statistically indistinguishable from pre-storm figures.
At the same time, housing costs have increased dramatically, with the median rent going from just under $700 to $925 between 2004 and 2013, according to The Data Center. Fully 58 percent of the city’s tenants are considered “cost-burdened” by their rent — meaning they spend almost a third of their income for housing, according to the Fair Housing Action Center. That’s up from about 37 percent before the storm.
“The fact that the city is costlier means it remains unaffordable for lower-income people,” Hill said. “That comes at the expense of the people that were here before the storm.”
“When I look at what we’ve done throughout the city, I think most people would be amazed at the level of progress,” said Erika McConduit-Diggs, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. “But I think when you dig a little deeper in terms of equity, in the recovery, that’s where we’re probably not as far as I’d like to see us be.”
Reducing inequities between the races will be difficult, McConduit-Diggs said. She said solutions have to include reforming the city’s criminal justice system, pushing officials to continue supporting programs that aid businesses owned by women and minorities in the contracting process, and workforce development efforts such as those being implemented in connection with construction of Louis Armstrong International Airport’s new terminal.
Newcomers move in
As longtime New Orleanians have been scrambling to regain their footing in the remade city, newcomers have been flocking here in droves as well, leaving their own marks on the once-insular city.
A 2011 study found that more than 10 percent of the city’s residents had arrived since the flood. Tulane University geography professor Richard Campanella pegs the total population of newcomers at between 25,000 and 30,000, extrapolating from the 2011 study and his own experiences observing what he describes as two distinct waves of migration.
The first came immediately, as government officials, planners, volunteers and work crews swarmed to New Orleans to help in the recovery. A second wave came as the city gained new allure as national attention focused on its rebound and the often-romanticized quirks of living in southeast Louisiana.
The costs of the city’s trendy appeal have pushed some residents to the suburbs, which have grown increasingly diverse. That follows national trends that have seen central city prices rise as urban living becomes more fashionable.
Overall, the six suburban parishes in the New Orleans region are now about 62 percent white, compared with 74 percent in 2000. The entire region is expected to be majority-minority by 2030, according to The Data Center.
Hispanic population swells
The storm spurred rapid growth in the metro area’s Hispanic community, which now makes up about 14 percent of the region’s population. Almost 107,000 residents now identify themselves as Hispanic, according to the most recent census estimates, an 81.4 percent increase since 2000.
The Hispanic community has been growing nationwide, but the pace of its rise in the New Orleans area can be traced largely to the recovery. About half of those who heeded the call to fill construction jobs in the recovery were Hispanic, according to a 2006 survey.
But the rebuilding wasn’t just a short-term job, and as those workers settled down, every parish in the New Orleans area saw its Hispanic population spike.
The largest group of Hispanics is now in Jefferson Parish, whose Latino community has grown by 27,640 people since 2000. Jefferson, which now accounts for almost 60 percent of the region’s Hispanic population, has traditionally had the largest Hispanic population in the metropolitan area.
That’s likely one of the factors that encouraged newer residents to gravitate there, said Rafael Saddy, who established the Latin American Civic Association in the parish in 1977.
“They found their home away from home, churches, hospitals,” Saddy said. “This is where they are; this is where the businesses are starting to set up. If I move to New Orleans and want to live in the Hispanic community, I’m going to move to these pockets.”
Lower housing costs in the suburbs also may have contributed to the growth in their Hispanic population.
“That growth continued for the simple fact that there was no housing in New Orleans,” Saddy said. “They came to Jefferson, and this is where we see the growth taking place.”
While Saddy, who served as Kenner’s liaison to the Hispanic community, said the community faces little outright discrimination, institutional problems remain. At the most basic level, there’s a need for more translators — something the city of Kenner addressed by ensuring there is a Spanish-speaking employee in each department.
The public school system also must do more to ensure students from Spanish-speaking families are able to get homework assistance.
“The parents, even though they want to help, they can’t because they don’t understand the language,” Saddy said.
To be sure, the region did see what appeared to be some deliberate attempts at exclusion.
St. Bernard Parish passed regulations after the storm requiring that renters be related to their landlords, a move seen as an attempt by a community that was then 84 percent white to exclude minorities. The law was struck down, and St. Bernard, perhaps ironically, has become substantially more diverse.
Within Orleans Parish, outright discrimination is not the central problem. But many minority families are being priced out of their communities, underscoring a need for more affordable housing, said Hill, the Fair Housing Action Center director.
“It’s less intentional exclusion and more a lack of a comprehensive plan that would allow the city’s pre-Katrina residents to return to their homes,” Hill said. “We’re working to solve inequities at this level, but it requires something a little more creative than litigation: policy advocacy and grass-roots organizing and public and private actors coming together and recognizing their common goals.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.