Nearly 10 years since flooding displaced hundreds of thousands of residents after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans region’s growth rate continues to slow as the initial surge that marked a returning population is giving way to more typical growth patterns, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
New Orleans was home to about 384,320 people last year and sat at the center of an eight-parish metro area with a combined population of more than 1.25 million, according to estimates released this week.
While New Orleans grew at a respectable rate of 1.4 percent between 2013 and 2014 and the larger region saw an 0.8 percent increase, the area is no longer putting up the high growth percentages it did as residents flocked back in the years immediately following Katrina.
But that’s to be expected, said Allison Plyer, executive director and chief demographer of The Data Center, a local nonprofit agency that has tracked the region’s population and recovery.
“Pretty much every year since Katrina, the trajectory of recovery has slowed, but that’s because it was so fast at first,” she said.
The slowing growth rate while the area is still far below its pre-Katrina population of close to 500,000 could be a sign that it won’t reach that level again anytime soon, if ever. But Plyer noted that New Orleans had been on a long decline before the storm, dwindling from a peak population of about 630,000 residents in 1960.
“The fact that we’re growing is the important thing,” she said. “The only time it will become concerning is if we are shrinking.”
Estimates of New Orleans’ population just before the storm vary. The Census Bureau’s official estimate now puts the population at about 494,300 in 2005, though that comes after the bureau made corrections to its figures after the 2010 census. Earlier estimates had put the population closer to 455,000.
Using the larger figure, New Orleans is now at about 78 percent of its population before the storm, while the metropolitan area — which includes Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist, St. James and St. Charles parishes — has about 90 percent of its pre-Katrina population.
In pure population, New Orleans was the largest driver of growth in the region in 2014, gaining more than 5,300 people. While the estimates show that most of that increase — about 3,500 people — came from people who moved into the city, the Census Bureau figures do not indicate how many of those people were returning residents and how many moved to the city for the first time.
The second largest growth was in St. Tammany Parish, which added about 3,350 people, to a total of about 245,830 residents.
Unsurprisingly, St. Bernard had the fastest growth rate in the New Orleans area, as it has had every year since Katrina. That’s a reflection of how much the parish was devastated by the storm — its population shrank from 71,300 to about 16,560 — and the fact that relatively small numbers of people translate into large percentages when the base population is so low. St. Bernard is estimated to have had about 44,400 residents in 2014, a 2.37 percent increase over 2013.
All those parishes, and the region itself, outpaced the state’s growth rate. Louisiana’s population increased by about 0.44 percent, with 20,000 added residents giving it a total population of about 4.65 million people.
The River Parishes — St. Charles, St. John and St. James — lagged behind others in the region, a possible sign that residents who had been displaced by Katrina were moving to more urban areas. Still, those parishes could provide a boost to the region’s overall population growth in future years, Plyer said.
“Continued population growth requires continued job growth,” she said. “The region does have a positive economic forecast, with a lot of new manufacturing plants going into St. James and St. John.”
However, Plyer said, population alone — or even its relationship to its pre-Katrina level —- is not the most important factor to take into account when evaluating the region.
“There are more important indicators to look at: reductions in poverty levels, continued reductions in crime, increases in income, continued improvements in schools,” she said.
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