Tumbleweeds aren’t typically found in Louisiana, but you’d be forgiven for thinking you saw one if you drove through St. Bernard Parish recently. Sitting just east of New Orleans, the area, which was home to nearly 67,000 residents in 2001, now hosts about half as many people as it did ten years ago. In some communities, semi-deserted streets are lined with boarded-up homes, and tall grasses grow wild in unkempt yards.
The depopulation problem extends well beyond the parish line. In fact, based on information from the Population Estimate Program—a division of the U.S. Census Bureau—the population of the seven parishes in the New Orleans metropolitan area in 2010 was 11.3% smaller than it had been in 2000.
Curiously, the population losses have not been random. Indeed, coastal Louisiana’s residents appear to be moving toward parishes at higher average elevations and away from parishes closer to sea level that had been devastated by storm surges and levee failures after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita hit the region in 2005.
What are the implications of this uneven rise and fall? Let’s consider them in this post.
A PEP Talk
Each year, the Population Estimates Program (PEP) of the U.S. Census Bureau publishes demographic reports on the nation, its 50 states, and over 3,000 counties and county-equivalent jurisdictions scattered across America. The reference date for these annual figures is July 1.
As we approached the end of June, we decided to take a look at population numbers for the past decade in the Mississippi River Delta to see how demographic shifts could influence wetland restoration and hazard mitigation priorities in the region. We focused on seven parishes (Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, and St. Tammany) that are considered part of the New Orleans Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Together, they are home to about 1.2 million of the roughly 1.5 million people who live in the wetland parishes of southeastern Louisiana.
We can glean some important demographic information from the above graphs. First, we see that while there were some differences in growth trajectories during the first half of the 2000s, the overall population of the region remained pretty steady. We start to see big deviations from the Year 2000 population numbers when we look at the demographic figures for July 2006, the first year after the storms, levee failures, and floods of 2005. After these disasters, the gap between the parishes that gained in population and those that shrunk grew wider. While the number of people living in some parishes increased by as much as 22% between 2000 and 2010, the decline in population in the region’s biggest parishes led to an 11.3% drop in the cumulative residential tally for the seven-parish region.
Second, it is interesting to note that the population distribution of the region appears to be shifting to higher ground, a trend that has been noted before in real estate journals and other publications. For example, the PEP estimated that the residential population of St. Charles Parish, which sits at an average elevation of 21 feet above sea level, rose steadily from 48,072 in July 2000 to 52,780 in July 2010, yielding a 2000-2010 increase of 9.79%. In contrast, the population of Plaquemines Parish, which sits at an average elevation of 6 feet above sea level, rose slightly from 26,757 in 2000 to 28,549 in 2005, plunged sharply to 21,293 in 2006, and rebounded slowly from its post-Katrina low to 23,042 in July 2010, equivalent to a 13.88% decline in population over the ten-year period.
If You (Re)build It, Will They Come Back?
The thinning population of places like St. Bernard Parish poses challenges for regional planners and state officials as they work to restore the delta and rebuild its economy. For instance, how will Louisiana source workers for wetland restoration projects? If commuters are living dozens of miles from the coast, what provisions will need to be made to transport these workers to and from sites near the sea? What measures should be taken to preserve historic towns and hamlets that are shrinking for lack of new residents? Might state and federal observers express more interest in protecting certain parts of the Mississippi River Delta as opposed to others based on population density and other demographic factors? How should Louisiana invest hazard mitigation funds to best shield its residents from subsidence and sea level rise?
The demographic decline also poses a challenge for our country. The United States needs Louisiana-based fishermen to harvest seafood from the waterways of the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. Our nation also depends on thousands of local engineers to keep critical oil and gas facilities functioning throughout southeastern Louisiana. In addition, America’s transportation sector would face crippling shutdowns without the thousands of Louisiana dockworkers, boat pilots, and logistics managers who maintain the ports, warehouses, and shipping facilities lining the lower reaches of the Mississippi River. When these people are displaced, even temporarily, the impact ripples throughout agricultural and energy markets, and our nation’s economy suffers as a consequence. The hit that would come from a more permanent abandonment of portions of the Mississippi River Delta could be devastating for Louisiana, its neighbors, and America as a whole.
We’ll have to wait until next year to see the Census Bureau’s estimates for the July 2011 population of these seven parishes. Between now and then, far-reaching choices will be made about funding for environmental work in the region and the roll-out of restoration initiatives. The charts in this post vividly illustrate why disaster management and long-term planning are so important in this low-lying region. Numerous government officials have visited Louisiana and made promises to help its people recover from Katrina, Rita, Gustav and other recent disasters. But these pledges have not translated into game-changing progress on hazard mitigation and coastal restoration, as borne out by the population trends shown above.
Our nation cannot dither on these commitments any longer. We must make every effort to prevent southern Louisiana from slipping into an inexorable population slump by committing the necessary resources to secure its environmentally-sensitive delta and shore up its endangered communities.