Katrina: One Year Later

Tracking the Katrina Diaspora: A Tricky Task

By Maria Godoy


Katrina: One Year Later


NPR.org, August 2006 · Katrina drove more than a million people from their homes, probably the largest migration of Americans since the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Most fled to neighboring states. But coming up with a current status report is tricky. There's no national database to keep tabs on Katrina evacuees. FEMA maintains a list of U.S. mailing addresses for those receiving assistance, but that list reflects households, not individuals. What is clear is that hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents still have not returned home a year later. Here's a look at five cities that took in large numbers of Gulf Coast evacuees, how many remain today and how they are faring:


HOUSTON/SAN ANTONIO: So many evacuees came to Texas and stayed that the state undertook its own accounting. Of the estimated 250,000 people initially harbored in Houston, about 111,000 remain today, according to a comprehensive survey released in August by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. A national survey by the Appleseed Foundation, a nonprofit legal network, found that many of the evacuees in Houston were bused there from the New Orleans Superdome, and lacked the means to evacuate on their own.

A similarly underprivileged population made its way to San Antonio. The city estimates that it still hosts 15,000 evacuees. (Calculations based on FEMA mailing address data put that number slightly higher, at 18,000.) Nearly half of the evacuees had a household member with chronic illness. Many continue to suffer mental trauma from the storm.

Across the Lone Star State, 41 percent of evacuees have household incomes of less than $500 a month, the Texas state survey found. Most are still jobless. And many have at least one child at home.

BATON ROUGE: As Hurricane Katrina approached, thousands of New Orleanians headed west to Baton Rouge, about 80 miles away; still more arrived as the storm progressed and in its aftermath.

Estimates of just how many evacuees the city took in vary widely. But all suggest that Baton Rouge's population of 420,000 just about doubled. Most official sources put the number of initial evacuees at 300,000, with as many as 50,000 remaining today.

The mayor's office thinks those figures are too low. Extrapolating from traffic counts, the city believes that it initially hosted as many as 400,000 extra people, with 100,000 there today. The U.S. Postal Service says about 72,000 residents of New Orleans still have mail forwarded to Baton Rouge.

The population explosion has pushed up housing demand and housing prices, which have skyrocketed by 27 percent to an average of $172,300 over the last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. Rental vacancies are rare. Louisiana health officials estimate 70 percent of evacuees in Baton Rouge lack health insurance. Hundreds still live in FEMA trailer villages.

ATLANTA: An estimated 100,000 evacuees arrived in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Many came by their own means and stayed with family or friends, according to the Appleseed report. The latest figures from FEMA, from August, suggest that about 70,000 evacuees are still there today.

Tracking evacuees is becoming harder as they integrate themselves into greater metropolitan Atlanta. City and state aid agencies, as well as nonprofit groups, told Appleseed that the Gulf Coast residents in Atlanta are less likely to seek assistance than evacuees in other cities.

BIRMINGHAM: Birmingham took in a lot fewer evacuees than other neighboring major cities -- an estimated 20,000. Like evacuees in Atlanta, they typically got there on their own and tended to be more middle- and upper-class.

Birmingham does not keep track of evacuees today. But estimates from the Department of Health in Jefferson County (Birmingham is the county seat) suggest that just 1,500 evacuees remain in Alabama's largest city. Those figures are based on the number of evacuees enrolled in a welfare-assistance program for families with children run by the United Way. A far different view comes from FEMA's data, which suggests that nearly 13,000 evacuees remain.

Harry Brown, a senior vice president of United Way of Central Alabama, says the true figure is not known, but he thinks it lies somewhere between the two estimates.

"It's a shifting population," Brown notes -- an observation that applies to many evacuees, regardless of where they are.