The Power Shuffle

by Jeremy Alford

The diaspora provoked by Katrina and Rita is still under way, moving around people, political influence and regional culture.

By now, most folks in south Louisiana have seen the maps. They're generated by government agencies, private groups and media, and usually include clusters of dots or circles depicting where hurricane evacuees are now located. Places like Atlanta and Washington appear like crows' nests and, surprisingly, there are tiny indicators in places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska. The dispersion of people is also clearly seen in headlines: Home price increases in Baton Rouge are the highest in the nation, up 27 percent for the second quarter. New Orleans evacuees are cited in a 17.5 percent spike in Houston murders. Louisiana's Road Home program, which will distribute money to get people back into their homes, saw its registration swell to more than 100,000 applicants.

The shifting of lives along the Gulf Coast is still staggering to comprehend, comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl, the 1927 floods and the 1755 exile of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. Still, the 2005 hurricane season stands alone ' according to state figures, Katrina and Rita displaced more than 780,000 people in Louisiana alone.

The end result could be diminished federal funding, which is based on population numbers, and the loss of two seats in Congress over the next 14 years. There are also indications that the shift of political power from New Orleans to other regions around the state is strengthening. It's a sullen cause-and-effect scenario where population equals money and influence, a state of affairs that demographers and political observers alike believe is approaching, despite the lack of reliable, current data.

"No one is geared up to take a real census except the U.S. Census Bureau, and they only do it every 10 years," says State Demographer Karen Paterson. "And it's a moving target right now because people don't stay in one place. A lot of things are still unresolved."

At deadline, the census was set to release its American Community Survey for cities with populations greater than 65,000 and less than 250,000. It has a large margin of error and only counts people living in households. Another population survey for the devastated areas, this time based on the state's administrative records, is also expected in December.

"Everyone is waiting on Katrina numbers, and this isn't it," Paterson says.

However, a rapid-response survey recently conducted in the New Orleans region, including St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, could be released over the next couple of months. While it will make for an interesting read, Paterson says the real story will emerge with the official 2010 decennial census.

What we already know for sure is Louisiana was hemorrhaging residents prior to last year's hurricane season. Based on the most recent and complete statewide census survey released six years ago, 75,000 people moved out of Louisiana from 1995 to 2000, with 47,000 people leaving New Orleans during that time period. Shreveport-based demographer and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher says the storms placed this historical trend in overdrive. Recent reports using postal records reveal the wave of people moving back into New Orleans has slowed, and Stonecipher believes a second wave of people moving out is about to occur.

"We don't want to believe that any of the people that stayed are going to leave, but they are," he says. "They're going to leave because the schools didn't work out. They're going to leave because of Entergy. They're going to leave because of the [New Orleans] mayor's race and state politics. They are fed up, and they do not want to wait anymore."

This is the loss Stonecipher says will largely be picked up by the 2010 census, which will in turn be used to determine federal funding and draw new election boundaries. Even before the storms, Louisiana needed another 7,000 new residents over the next five years to keep from losing a congressional seat. In fact, a 30-year estimate by the census bureau ranked Louisiana 49th overall in growth. The situation is so dire that Stonecipher says another congressional seat could be lost following the 2020 population census unless something "unforeseen" happens.

The traditional epicenter of power in state politics is expected to shift as well. As more people leave the New Orleans region, Stonecipher says its fabled hold over the state Legislature will further deteriorate. There are currently 21 seats in the House and Senate that encompass or touch on Orleans Parish, out of 144 total seats statewide. But if the population doesn't pick back up in Orleans Parish in coming years, New Orleans may be confined to just a few seats in each chamber through redistricting.

The Baton Rouge region has gained the most from the tumultuous shifts. Outlying parishes like Livingston and Ascension were already growing due to "white flight," and the city's school enrollments recently beat earlier estimates. Baton Rouge's proximity to the interstate system and the New Orleans region has also worked in its favor.

Exactly how many people are in Baton Rouge now is anybody's guess. James Richardson, an economics professor at Louisiana State University, told MSNBC that he expects a permanent population increase of 25,000 to 50,000 in the greater Baton Rouge area; the Baton Rouge's mayor's office released a 100,000 head-count figure in the past year, and a federal survey found a 60,000 spike earlier this year. "I have a sense people are going to be staying there," Paterson says.

Lafayette is stuck in the middle of the trend, Stonecipher says. The Hub City took on additional residents after Katrina and many have stayed, but the people who sought refuge from Rita were less permanent and may have been counted in those numbers. That's sparked ongoing debates in the business community about overbuilding to suit a population that might be smaller than it seems.

Further north are signs of relatively minor growth in Shreveport, even though a recent survey showed a drop in residents. Stonecipher believes that dip might hold if baby boomers and retirees don't start looking toward the state line to spend Road Home money. "There are a lot of people saying Shreveport is now the second largest city in the state, and that's not going to end up being true," he says. "It is a little further than most evacuees will want to live, and there is a huge cultural barrier with anything north of Alexandria."

The sleeper gains may be in cities located in the Bayou Parish region, like Houma and Thibodaux. As the state dispenses money to people for rebuilding, and the recovery of hard-hit places like St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes remains uncertain, white-collar families might look further down the coast for a similar lifestyle.

"It just seems to make so much sense to me," Stonecipher says. "It depends how serious we are about coastal restoration issues and hurricane issues. Absent those fears, though, these areas could disproportionately gain."

Anything can happen between now and 2010. The New Orleans region will continue its rebirth as federal dollars fill state coffers and homes will be rebuilt in increasing numbers. But below the surface, Stonecipher says a significant segment of the population is going to grow weary with the slow pace of recovery and the incessant noise of political chatter. "Some people might be fooled because of all the money being spent and because they can see the brick and mortar," he says. "But dollars being spent does not mean healthy and fundamental change. We can't allow ourselves to believe every single person is coming home and that they'll stay here when they do."