New census estimates show continued growth in New Orleans, St. Bernard

More than eight years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish are continuing to grow in population, though both are still significantly smaller than they were before they flooded in August 2005, according to new estimates released by the Census Bureau.

New Orleans added nearly 9,000 residents between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2013, according to the estimates, giving the city a population of 378,715. That’s still roughly 20 percent fewer people than the city had when the storm struck.

But the city’s continuing growth — a jump of 2.5 percent from 2012, after 2.4 percent growth the year before — was taken as a positive sign by local demographers.

“I think, in terms of Katrina, we would expect population recovery rates to decrease year by year,” said Allison Plyer, director of the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. “So the fact that the rate did not decrease would suggest that we’ve turned a corner.”

She added: “The dynamic of recovery — we generally expect that the velocity slows year over year. The fact that it’s not less and maybe a tad more suggests that the dynamic of our economic growth is maybe stronger than the dynamic of Katrina recovery.”

Several other parishes in the metro area also saw relatively strong growth, particularly flood-ravaged St. Bernard Parish, which grew by 4.6 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States last year, according to the Census Bureau estimates.

St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes grew by 1.3 and 1.4 percent, respectively.

Plyer said population growth tends to follow job growth, and she attributed the gains locally to positive employment trends in the manufacturing and oil-and-gas sectors. That said, she added that many of the new jobs are outside the city, and that the gains suggest “the city is attractive enough that people are choosing the city.”

While data are difficult to come by, New Orleans has been attracting an increasing number of young people, something the city had trouble doing in the decades before Katrina. Tulane University geographer Rich Campanella has estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 young people, whom he has referred to as “idealistic millennials,” have settled in the city, in the process making New Orleans a hot destination among recent college graduates.

While the influx has generally been welcomed by city officials and municipal boosters, it also has sparked complaints that New Orleans is becoming harder to afford for some of those who have long called it home.

Demographer Greg Rigamer said it’s undeniable that “the city is attracting a populace we had not successfully attracted before in terms of young professionals coming here to launch a career.” But he said there is also evidence that the city’s underlying demographics haven’t changed much. He noted, for instance, that in this month’s recent runoff election in New Orleans, 57 percent of votes were cast by African-Americans, the highest percentage in any post-Katrina election in which President Barack Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot.

Such statistics counter the notion that New Orleans is being swarmed by young, mostly white college graduates.

“We’re not being overrun by that group,” Rigamer said. “The profile of this community is not changing dramatically.”

“ The more time that passes and the more recovery you see, the more we begin to resemble the profile we had previously.

“We’re clearly an attractor of younger people, but not in such significant numbers that it will change the profile of the city.”

Census estimates are notoriously unreliable. Plyer and Rigamer, in fact, were hired by City Hall in 2008 to challenge estimates that officials felt were too low. The challenge succeeded, and census officials bumped up their estimates.

But both demographers said they think the new estimates are on target. The new numbers track closely with their own estimates, which are based on various measures, including the number of households receiving mail, they said.