N.O. population still growing, but more slowly

Advocate staff photo by Eliot Kamenitz -- New Orleans population continues to rebound nine years after Hurricane Katrina.
Advocate staff photo by Eliot Kamenitz -- New Orleans population continues to rebound nine years after Hurricane Katrina.

City approaches 90% of pre-Katrina population

Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ population continues to rebound steadily, although the growth rate has ebbed, according to a new analysis by the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

The number of households receiving mail in the city grew by 1.2 percent between June 2013 and June 2014, the data center’s figures show. That compares with a growth rate of 1.6 percent in the previous year, 2.5 percent in the year before that and 5.2 percent in the year before that.

An annual growth rate of 1.2 percent, though down sharply from recent years, still keeps New Orleans among America’s fastest-growing cities, according to Allison Plyer, the center’s executive director.

“The growth we had in the years after Katrina was astronomical because we were starting with such a small base,” Plyer said. “But our growth now is actually really strong relative to other cities.”

That raises the question: How much of the city’s continued growth can be chalked up to New Orleanians still trickling back home nine years after the storm, versus new arrivals migrating to the city to seek an opportunity?

In Plyer’s view, at least some of the influx is the result of a relatively strong economy that is less dependent on post-Katrina rebuilding than it was in the immediate post-storm years, which could suggest the growth won’t stop anytime soon.

Demographer Greg Rigamer agreed with that assessment, saying, “we clearly have some new people coming here, as well as many people coming back. It really is a combination of the two.”

Rigamer said he expects the number of Katrina returnees to continue to slow over time, but he also expects the city to continue to swell with new arrivals, especially as the giant new medical complex in Mid-City comes online. He also said New Orleans will continue to benefit — in part at the expense of its suburbs — from a national trend toward rediscovery and repopulation of central cities.

Within New Orleans, there’s been a bit of a counter-trend to that phenomenon in the past few years: The city’s post-Katrina growth patterns have changed as the storm continues to recede into the distance.

Initially, the city’s centrally located and less-damaged neighborhoods — chiefly those on the West Bank and in the so-called “sliver by the river” — were the first to rebound, and they recovered quickly. In the last several years, though, the growth in mail service has been most rapid in neighborhoods that were hard-hit by Katrina’s floodwaters, many of them suburban sections of town that were developed after the city’s old core ran out of buildable space.

For the purposes of its analysis, the data center slices the city up into 72 neighborhoods, a map of which can be seen on its website, datacenterresearch.org.

Among the neighborhoods seeing the most robust growth since 2010 have been Filmore, Holy Cross, Lakeview, the Lower 9th Ward and Pontchartrain Park, according to the group’s data. Big gains, of 20 percent or more, also have been seen across much of New Orleans East.

All told, 38 of the 72 neighborhoods now have at least 90 percent as many people as they did pre-Katrina, the group says. And just three neighborhoods — the Lower 9th Ward and the areas around the former Florida and B.W. Cooper public housing developments — have less than half the population they did before the 2005 storm.

The group does not extrapolate population estimates from its postal data, although Plyer believes the number of households receiving mail is a valid basis for estimating population.

By the group’s count, there are now nearly 180,000 households receiving mail in New Orleans — 88 percent of the pre-Katrina total.

That figure squares pretty closely with the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which estimated the city’s population in July 2013 at 378,715. That’s 83 percent of the pre-Katrina estimate of 454,865.

If the 1.2 percent growth rate in households measured by the data center were applied to people, the city’s population would now stand at 383,260. Rigamer said that figure is almost identical to his firm’s current estimate of New Orleans’ population, an estimate derived from utility usage, mail service and other metrics.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.