Demographic Storm

The natural disasters of 2005 may spawn political hurricanes in 2010.
by | August 2007

Any doubts about the long-term political significance of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes are going to be washed away by the next U.S. Census. With millions displaced in the exodus following the back-to-back storms, legislative power is certain to shift inside every affected state.

In Louisiana, voters in Baton Rouge and in rural communities will gain new strength in the state House and Senate at the expense of New Orleans and the devastated areas in surrounding towns and parishes. Coastal counties in Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Texas will lose influence when it comes time to review the Census data and carve up legislative seats. The 2010 population count also will affect how Washington divides up funds among the states for numerous federal programs.

With so much at stake, there will be more pressure than ever on the Census Bureau to get its numbers right, especially in those communities still rebuilding from the storms. But a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office offers some hint as to just how hard that assignment will be.

Most local officials on the Gulf Coast say their hands are still too full with recovery efforts for them to actively participate in the Local Update of Census Addresses Program, or LUCA--a Census effort to work with municipal governments to gather and revise lists of street addresses and maps for the Bureau's army of nose-counters. That process is supposed to wrap up next March, but with so much ongoing demolition and reconstruction in the Gulf region, those addresses are moving targets.

Katrina left an estimated 300,000 homes destroyed or uninhabitable. In New Orleans alone, 123,000 housing units were damaged. The GAO says many residences that will appear vacant or abandoned when Census workers begin canvassing and validating their address lists in April 2009 could well be occupied by the time of the actual Census a year later. That could be a recipe for chaos or at least protracted litigation.

Temporary housing will be a problem, too. The GAO reports that many of the lots that its staff visited on the Gulf Coast had "a permanent structure with undetermined occupancy, as well as a trailer," and warned that the Census Bureau's field staff "may be presented with the challenge of determining whether a residence or a trailer, or both, are occupied."

Census has been considering various ways to deal with its address problems, including a system by which Census takers could update their lists and maps as they go along. But merely finding the Census takers is a serious problem in itself, because the entire Gulf Coast region has suffered from a major workforce shortage since the storms. To recruit workers, the Bureau's Dallas Regional Office, which is in charge of the Gulf Coast Census area, has recommended paying higher- than-usual hourly wage rates where needed. It's one more reminder that the final bill for the 2005 hurricanes is far from being tallied--and that the effects will be felt for many years to come.