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New Orleans ‘melting pot’ may evaporate

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

Hurricane Katrina may have emptied whole sections of New Orleans, but it hasn’t set in motion the great national diaspora that was widely foreseen. Instead, the vast majority of displaced households are staying close to their former homes, postal records show.A Los Angeles Times analysis of address changes after the hurricane also highlights the metropolitan area’s sharp distinctions of class and race. Poor blacks from the city were more likely to land farther away in places much different from home. In many cases, those evacuees stayed wherever government-chartered buses or planes stopped.Evacuees from the suburbs, mostly middle-class whites, tended to find housing closer by in areas similar to their neighborhoods, which minimized the disruption to their lives and left them in a better position to return as soon as circumstances allow.Despite the initial alarm over a massive migration that would irreversibly scatter the city’s population across the 50 states, only a small percentage has landed more than a day’s drive – about 300 miles – from New Orleans. Fifty-nine percent found new housing without leaving the storm-damaged area.These patterns emerged from a Times analysis of about 325,000 address changes from Aug. 29 – the day Katrina hit – through mid-October, representing about a quarter of the 1.5 million households in the hurricane-damaged region no longer receiving postal delivery. For privacy reasons, the U.S. Postal Service excluded destinations where fewer than 25 families relocated – a total of about 30,000 households.The findings provide only a snapshot of migration patterns. Migration will be in flux for a long time, possibly years, as thousands continue to lead unsettled and unstable lives in hotel rooms, trailers and other temporary housing.”We should look at this situation as a kind of motion picture, and this gives us a glimpse of one scene,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan.”I would bet that six weeks from now, two months from now, two years from now these numbers will be dramatically different,” said Frey, author of “America by the Numbers: A Field Guide to the U.S. Population.”Address changes that have poured in since mid-October, however, followed the same migration pattern, the postal service said.Caveats aside, Frey and other researchers said there was evidence – primarily anecdotal – corroborating the Times’ finding that poor blacks ended up farther away in wealthier, more rural areas that are predominantly white. The move to more-prosperous areas could amount to a second chance for many evacuees and could change New Orleans forever.Tulane University sociology professor James Elliott said New Orleans, more than any other large American city, is a place of concentrated poverty, where schools and social agencies perform poorly and where a large number of residents seem stuck in a cycle of poverty that goes back generations.”Will moving to a new place help some people? The answer is `probably,’ ” Elliott said, adding that much would depend on how accommodating their new hometowns turn out to be.The greater distance from home and their lack of financial and social resources will make it more difficult for poor people to return, whereas middle-class residents who want to go back home are more likely to be able to afford it. What this could portend for the rebuilding of New Orleans is a city with radically different demographics.”It points to a New Orleans that could become much more white and middle-class,” said Laura Ann Sanchez, a researcher at the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. Sanchez lived and taught in New Orleans for six years, leaving in 2000.”The truly astonishing melting pot of race and culture that made New Orleans such a gem could be gone forever,” Sanchez said.About 65 percent of the address changes were turned in by evacuees from the New Orleans area. Of that group, most came from densely populated Orleans Parish, one of the poorest areas in the nation, whose population was about two-thirds black. Many of these evacuees settled in areas where the populations on average were two-thirds white.Nearly 15 percent of the Orleans Parish evacuees scattered to such distant cities as Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Boston.By contrast, the displaced population of New Orleans’ suburban counties, which were about two-thirds white, evacuated to areas similar in racial demographics. The suburban group largely settled nearby, with 10 percent staying within the same ZIP code and more than 90 percent relocating within the region.In hurricane-damaged areas beyond New Orleans and its suburbs, the tendency to stay close was even stronger, with nearly half of address changes occurring within the same ZIP code.Overall, about 80 percent of the evacuees remained in the Southern states closest to the hurricane-damaged region, with the top destinations being suburban New Orleans, followed by Houston; Baton Rouge, La.; Dallas; and Atlanta.The postal service information, tracking movements among regions that share the first three digits of a ZIP code, roughly corroborates Federal Emergency Management Agency statistics on people who have applied for aid.The postal service does not normally release address changes but has agreed to provide quarterly summaries. The next release will be in January.After initial stays in emergency shelters, many blacks went where they had family, which partly explains the migration to Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. Earlier migrations of Louisiana blacks to these cities created networks of extended families, particularly in Houston, about a five-hour drive from New Orleans. Louisianans have long migrated to Houston for jobs and better schools.At its peak, Houston housed as many as 200,000 evacuees. City officials say as many as 50,000 have left, creating speculation that residents are trickling back home – or close to home.Audrey Singer, a migration expert in Washington and author of an academic paper titled “The World in a Zip Code,” said many New Orleans evacuees want to get as close to home as possible to monitor the recovery process. Studies show that about half the residents in the most devastated areas of the city are homeowners.”Being close by is a good thing for them because they can get back quickly and check on their properties,” Singer said.Many evacuees have made frequent trips to retrieve whatever belongings they could salvage. New Orleans officials have said more and more residents are making their way back to the city for the first time, if only for a brief visit.Frey, the Michigan demographer, said he was skeptical about media surveys in which nearly 40 percent of evacuees said they would not return home. Those surveys, he said, were conducted in emergency shelters during the first weeks after Katrina, a time when most people were still in shock.More than three months after Katrina barreled through the region, thousands of evacuees are still dazed and disoriented, making it difficult to predict how many will return home, Frey said.The uncertainty is exacerbated by the seeming lack of progress in rebuilding New Orleans. Many evacuees are standing by in frustration as government leaders debate what course of action to take, according to Amy Liu, a policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.”My sense is that many families are anxious to go back,” Liu said, but as more time passes without a concrete recovery plan for New Orleans, the more likely it is that evacuees will settle elsewhere.


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