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Census Data Start to Show Katrina’s Long-Term Impact on New Orleans

New Orleans as Seen From Space on Jan. 26, 2011; Creative Commons photo courtesy NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

New Orleans as seen From space on Jan. 26; Creative Commons photo courtesy NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Long before last year’s Census, it was clear that New Orleans was a changed city. A drive past the vacant homes in the Lower Ninth Ward five-plus years after Hurricane Katrina makes that clear. But the scope of the change is only becoming apparent now as the 2010 data begin to trickle out.

The city has lost some 118,000 blacks and 24,000 whites since 2000, while the Hispanic population has increased by 3,200, according to Census data. The city has 29 percent fewer people than it did in 2000. The metro area has fewer young people, more Asians and more vacant homes.

The question, through the eye of Patchwork Nation, is: do all those momentous changes fundamentally change the kind of place New Orleans is? That’s not yet clear.

Patchwork Nation is built around the analysis and clustering of thousands of data points to sort the nation’s 3,141 counties into 12 types. (New Orleans’ city boundaries are the same as those of Orleans Parish – Louisiana has parishes rather than counties.)

Currently, we classify New Orleans as a Minority Central community based on 2008 estimates, but not just because it had a large black population. It also had higher-than-average poverty rates and a lower-than-average median household income. And beyond the black population, it did not have significant forms of racial diversity.

How Different Is New Orleans Now?

Even following the exodus from the Crescent City after the massive 2005 storm, New Orleans is still an overwhelmingly black city — more than 60 percent so. And even with the influx of Hispanics, that group still makes up only 5.3 percent of the population.

The real test for how much Orleans Parish has changed will be better known when the Census numbers on income are released. New Orleans is big, dense and might seem to be a logical fit in the big city Industrial Metropolis type. But along with low diversity, the median household income in Orleans Parish was only about $37,000 in 2008 according to the Census estimates.

An early estimate from Nielsen puts the city’s median household income around $39,500.

That’s still low compared to the counties in that type, where the average median household income in more than $47,000 – and higher in some places. For instance, in Fulton County, Ga., the Industrial Metropolis home to Atlanta, the median household income was more than $62,000 in 2008.

Change Takes Time

One of the most consistent questions we get with Patchwork Nation is “Isn’t the breakdown you’ve created likely to change?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Any breakdown of communities based on factors like ethnic and racial composition and occupation and income and religious affiliation – just a few of our points – is bound to change as people move and the economy and culture shift. But the story of New Orleans since Katrina shows how difficult large-scale change is.

Is New Orleans a different place in 2011 that is was in 2004? Yes. Is it fundamentally different? Maybe not. And as 2012 nears, that’s an important point to keep in mind.

Patchwork Nation believes – and we think it shows – that the United States in going through an era of drastic change. As we note in the book “Our Patchwork Nation,” the forces at play are about more than just a recession or a sharp increase in mobile technologies, they are about a new global economic and technological game that is changing America’s place in the world.

In that world, our 12 different community types are being pushed and pulled in very different directions.

But change takes time, even in the fast-paced United States. Its speed is measured in decades, not miles per hour. The cultural and socioeconomic identifiers of “place” are usually deep-set. They usually change incrementally.

Will the 2010 Census show changes in our breakdown of 12 community types? Almost certainly. But they probably won’t be revolutionary. And those expecting, or thinking they see, massive changes in the voting habits and trends of various American communities, based on population and economic shifts, might be surprised how slowly the landscape actually shifts.

Editor’s Note: For readers in the Washington, D.C., area, Dante Chinni will discuss the Patchwork Nation project Thursday evening at American University. More details here.

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