At the end of the last decade, Louisiana's largest city was the unfortunate winner of an unwanted award: the biggest loser.
As first reported by Michael Sauter on 24/7 Wall Street, New Orleans was ranked first among American cities in its percentage of residents lost between 2000 and 2009.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the number of people living in Orleans Parish (which shares the same boundaries as the city of New Orleans) fell from 483,663 in 2000 to 354,850 in 2009, equivalent to a 26.6% drop in population. New Orleans handily beat its nearest competitor, Flint, Michigan, which lost 13,266 residents (10.6% of its 2000 population) over the same period.
Flint and other "Rust Belt" runner-ups such as Cleveland (3rd), Buffalo (4th), and Dayton (5th) have suffered from decades of population decline, as shifting transportation modes and the eroding of America's manufacturing base accelerated an exodus of Michiganders, Ohioans, New Yorkers and others to the fast-growing cities of the Sun Belt.
But why New Orleans? After all, it is located at roughly the same latitude as Houston, Texas (2000-2009 population change: +15.6%) and Jacksonville, Florida (2000-2009 population change: +10.6%), so it should have been a beneficiary of the southward shift in America's population. Furthermore, the dramatic rise in global fuel and food commodity demand during the first decade of the 21st century should have made New Orleans, with its large energy and transportation sectors, a magnet for job-seekers.
Unique among the cities on the "loser" list, the Big Easy experienced a population drop brought on by disaster rather than economic decline. The impending arrival of Hurricane Katrina prompted a city-wide evacuation of New Orleans in August 2005. The city itself was spared a direct hit from the storm, which brushed past its eastern edge, but the system of levees surrounding New Orleans failed shortly after Katrina's departure. Within days, four-fifths of the city was submerged by floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River, and the Intracoastal Waterway.
The storm and the floods displaced hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, some of whom settled permanently in Houston and other cities after 2005. However, opportunities in cleanup and construction attracted thousands of returnees (and many newcomers) to New Orleans in the wake of the disasters, causing the city's population to swell from a post-storm low of 223,000 in 2006 to its present level above 350,000. In addition, a new system of stronger levees was designed to shield the city from future floods. Though these signs of growth and renewal have been encouraging, the bounceback in population appears to be slowing, giving pause to premature pronouncements on the demographic recovery of New Orleans.
We hope this is the last time that New Orleans tops the list of America's emptying cities. For that reason, we want New Orleans and its surrounding communities to be buffered by a smarter system of storm and flood protection, one that juxtaposes strengthened levees with restored wetlands and community resilience measures like home elevation. With these strategies in place, the biggest loser of the 2000s could well become a big winner of new residents, new jobs, and new investment in the 2010s.