Katrina's Impact On The Population Of New Orleans

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Mark VanLandingham, a professor of public health at Tulane University, about the changes in the makeup of the population of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck the city five years ago. Some ethnic groups have rebounded better than others. The Vietnamese population of East New Orleans has robustly returned to their old neighborhood, and the Hispanic population of the city has grown.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

About three weeks after Katrina struck, I rode into New Orleans with a colleague and it was a sight that I hope never to see again - a major American city abandoned and dark. The power was off. Street lamps were out. The only light was from the battery-powered neon signs - advertisements by businesses that were shuttered to customers who had fled. The big questions were: How many of the people would come back and when?

Well, five years later, we're now going to ask Professor Mark VanLandingham about Katrina and its impact on the population. He's a professor of public health at Tulane. Welcome to the program.

Professor MARK VANLANDINGHAM (Tulane University): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And, first, the population of the city in the 2000 Census, it was just under half a million. By the summer of 2006, a year after the flooding, the Census Bureau estimated it was down to 223,000, less than half. What do people figure the population is now?

Prof. VANLANDINGHAM: Well, it's a really interesting and unknown question. The data, unfortunately, are not very good. And, you know, there are a lot of challenges in trying to figure out what the population would be after a major disaster like Katrina. I think that when the Census Bureau figures come out at the end of the year, that it's going to actually be quite a bit lower than what people have been anticipating. I'm guessing that it's going to be in the low 300s.

SIEGEL: In the low 300s. And the argument nowadays would range somewhere between that and maybe as high as 400,000.

Prof. VANLANDINGHAM: Yes, I'd say that's about right. So you've got a difference of about, you know, roughly, you know, 50 to 100,000 between the low estimates and the high estimates.

SIEGEL: If we were to draw back and take a wide angle view not just of the city of New Orleans, but also say the suburban parishes, Jefferson Parish to the west, Saint Bernard Parish to the east of New Orleans, is it a similar story? We just don't know, or do we have a better fix on how many are there?

Prof. VANLANDINGHAM: Well, again, the simple answer is we don't know, but the metro area is probably not going to be that much different than it was before Katrina. A lot of people who were flooded out in Orleans Parish that, you know, wanted to, you know, stay in the New Orleans proper area, you know, simply moved over to the next parish or county.

SIEGEL: Orleans Parish, we should say, is the city of New Orleans.

Prof. VANLANDINGHAM: That's correct.

SIEGEL: One of the big questions about the population of New Orleans around the time of Katrina was, would the city after the floods, after the hurricane, be a significantly less black city than it had been? What do people estimate? Was the exodus of blacks who did not come back far greater than that of whites?

Prof. VANLANDINGHAM: Yes it is. Blacks were slower to return, and it looks like the population, when things stabilize, is going to have fewer blacks than it did before. Now, one interesting part of that is we also found that when we were trying to explain why whites came back earlier and at higher numbers, the biggest determination was: how much flooding did the household have? And once you take that into account, there aren't any racial differences.

SIEGEL: Everyone reported back in 2006, 2007 on the arrival of a great many Latino workers after the flooding. Did they stay and is New Orleans palpably more of a Latino city today or is it a very small incremental change in the population of the city?

Prof. VANLANDINGHAM: Well, it's - percentage wise it wasn't a big difference, you know. I mean, I think it went from four percent to six percent Latino, but you sure notice it. I mean, before Katrina, I mean it really was a black and white city. And, of course, you know the significant population of Vietnamese. Whereas, after Katrina, there are a lot more Latinos around and they're a lot more visible.

SIEGEL: So, Professor VanLandingham, for you, what's the bottom line? A terrible disaster struck New Orleans and five years later the city's population came out of it basically recognizable or a terrible disaster struck New Orleans and the people of that city are quite different, radically changed from the population pre-storm?

Prof. VANLANDINGHAM: Yeah. I'd say all of the above. I mean, it's a very complicated situation. I mean, New Orleans is not going to be the city, you know, that it was before, for better or worse. I mean it's certainly going to be smaller. It's going to be less poor. It's going to be slightly more Hispanic and it's going to be slightly less black. And, you know, there's people who have had the privilege to stay. And I count myself to be lucky to be among them.

Our hearts really go out, you know, towards our citizens, you know, who've not been able to return, especially those who haven't been able to. I mean, that's just a really sad thing and we're all very aware of that, especially, you know, when these anniversaries come along.

On the other hand, I mean, you know, New Orleans had a lot of poor people and not a whole lot of resources to take care of them. And so, perhaps the city might do a better job, you know, in taking care of our needy, you know, if it becomes a smaller portion of the population.

SIEGEL: Professor VanLandingham, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. VANLANDINGHAM: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Mark VanLandingham, professor of public health at Tulane University.

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