Gulf Coast residents moving inland, more commuting to jobs

A new report confirms what anyone trying to get through Belle Chasse in the early morning or late afternoon already knows: Most people working in Plaquemines Parish don’t live there.

That kind of commuter population is true for other coastal parishes around the state as coastal erosion continues to bring the Gulf of Mexico closer to traditional communities.

The Data Center based in New Orleans released a study Sunday that in part looks at what coastal land loss has meant to a “working coast” where unemployment is routinely lower than the national average, but where more and more people don’t call those coastal parishes home.

According to the report, “coastal populations facing rising sea levels are moving to higher ground. Repeated flooding, frequent evacuations and inability to get insurance are all factors that have contributed to residents’ decisions to migrate inland. The population left behind is on average older, poorer or otherwise vulnerable.”

The report says “several small coastal communities including Theriot, Dulac, Montegut, Chauvin, Cut Off, Lafitte and Port Sulphur have lost occupied households continually since July 2005.”

For example, it points to Plaquemines Parish, where 72 percent of all workers commute to the parish for work — up from 69 percent in 2004.

Parish President Billy Nungesser said that’s absolutely correct.

“Try to leave Plaquemines Parish from 2:30 p.m. on, and it’s worse than Baton Rouge traffic,” he said.

That daily influx of about 28,000 workers into the parish is also the reason Plaquemines has gotten the federal government to agree to a number of protection projects, like federal levees, even though the parish’s permanent population is only about 23,000 people, Nungesser said.

That incentive for federal help is likely to continue to grow if Venice becomes the hub for oil and gas production in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Industrial development along the river and expanding oil and gas activities will give currently vulnerable areas in the southern part of the parish a better shot at gaining federal protection.

When residents in communities like Ironton, Diamond and others fight the parish or state about companies seeking to locate along the Mississippi River, that’s counter to what the parish needs, Nungesser said.

“You better hope industry locates on the river,” he said.

Economic proof of the value of southern Plaquemines Parish is necessary to get the hurricane protection and major coastal restoration work the area needs before any large-scale residential or other development will go on south of Belle Chasse.

Plaquemines Parish isn’t the only coastal parish experiencing a movement of its workers to higher ground. The new report says the percentage of workers who commute into Lafourche Parish grew from 41 percent to 51 percent from 2004 to 2011. In Terrebonne Parish that growth went from 42 percent to 48 percent.

However, Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet said it’s not coastal land loss that has led a larger number of people to commute to the parish for work.

“I really believe they’re misinterpreting part of this data,” Claudet said. “I don’t think land loss has anything to do with people commuting into Terrebonne Parish.”

Instead, he said, the economic boom the parish is going through is demanding more skilled workers than are available locally. As an indication of that, he said, the parish is struggling to keep up with housing needs, with very few apartment or hotel vacancies and a rapid sale of homes whenever a new subdivision is built.

“We just need the housing,” he said. “Right now, that’s a major focus.”

As the owner of hundreds of apartments, Claudet said the last report he got is that there was only one vacancy available. Hotels also fill up during the work week, prompting the current construction of three or four new hotels in the parish, he said.

Claudet said it’s true there has been a migration of people from the southern parts of the parish toward the north and that some smaller communities have lost families over the years.

But, he said, that has stabilized because of an aggressive elevation program that has helped mitigate some of the danger of living in flood-prone areas.

Troy Blanchard, a professor of sociology at LSU, said small communities across the Midwest face a similar problem with population moves.

“For the Midwest, young families are leaving the area, and this will eventually result in the creation of ghost towns as the aging population is not replaced by younger residents,” Blanchard wrote in an email. “Whether a similar process plays out on the Louisiana coast is still up in the air. The key difference between the Midwest and coastal Louisiana is that coastal Louisiana continues to experience job growth, which attracts young adults and families.”

According to the report, “Unemployment in the Houma-Thibodaux metro has hovered below the national average nearly every year since 1990.”