Official documents were destroyed, years of photographs were ruined, and a city’s ability to know itself was lost. Answers to basic questions like how many people lived here, where they lived and who they were could not be easily answered.
Now there finally are some numbers, and they show that the city is 29 percent smaller than a decade ago. The Census Bureau reported on Thursday that 343,829 people were living in the city of New Orleans on April 1, 2010, four years and seven months after it was virtually emptied by the floodwaters that followed the hurricane.
The numbers portray a significantly smaller city than in the previous census, in 2000, though it should be said that New Orleans had been steadily shrinking even then. In 1990, it was the 24th-biggest city in the country, in 2000, the 31st, and now it has surely dropped from the top 50. The latest figure is lower than estimates cited widely by many here in recent months. It is lower, by roughly 10,000, than the official census estimate in the summer of 2009.
“It’s not an unqualified good thing to have big numbers,” said Mark VanLandingham, a professor at Tulane University who has expressed frustration with frequent calls from local officials, sometimes successful, for the Census Bureau to raise the city’s population estimate. “It made it very difficult to figure out what was actually going on.”
The census findings reveal some other changes in the population, as well.
According to Andrew A. Beveridge, a Queens College sociologist who analyzed the census results for The New York Times, the city has roughly 24,000 fewer white residents than it did 10 years ago, though the proportion of the white population has grown to 30 percent.
The city has 118,000 fewer black residents. New Orleans, once more than two-thirds black, is now less than 60 percent black.
There are 56,193 fewer children, a drop of nearly 44 percent. The movements in the region can be seen with some clarity as well. St. Tammany Parish, a suburban refuge for many New Orleanians after the storm, grew by nearly a quarter. St. Bernard Parish, which is downriver from the city and was almost completely overwhelmed by the floodwaters, shrank by nearly half. The Hispanic population of neighboring Jefferson Parish, home to many of those who came to fill the city’s ravenous appetite for construction labor, jumped by 65 percent.
Some may yet challenge these figures, arguing that the count overlooked people living in abandoned houses or moving in with one relative after another as they wait for rents to come down or houses to be rebuilt. There is no question such people exist in New Orleans; whether they were all counted is another matter.
Emily Arata, the deputy mayor for external affairs , said the city was not planning to challenge the numbers, in part because such challenges do not traditionally succeed but also because it was satisfied that the figure fell within 3 percent of the 2009 estimate.
The numbers have consequences, of course. Many of them will play out in the heated political battle to come in March when the State Legislature meets to discuss redistricting.
Louisiana has lost a Congressional seat, something that was possible even without the storm, given the state’s anemic population growth in the first five years of the decade. But while the loss itself may not be a result of the floodwaters, its effect will be.
With such a significant drop in New Orleans’s black population, will the state’s majority-minority Congressional district remain centered in the city? Will it snake upward from New Orleans, along the Mississippi to East Baton Rouge, now the largest parish in the state?
“The one thing that people need to realize about these numbers is that everything is on the table,” said Norby Chabert, a Democratic state senator from Houma, south of New Orleans. “The political assumptions that have been bedrock for however many years now are out the window.”