The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Counting in the Wake of a Catastrophe: Challenges and Recommendations for the 2010 Census in the Gulf Coast Region.


The U.S. Census Bureau produces an official count of the U.S. population once every 10 years as required by the U.S. Constitution. The count is used to allocate representation in the U.S. House of Representatives among the states; to draw congressional and state legislative district lines; to direct the distribution of trillions of dollars in federal, state, and private spending and investment decisions; and to assist in the evaluation and enforcement of civil rights protections.

Under the best of circumstances, compiling an accurate count is an enormous and complex undertaking with huge stakes for individuals and communities. It is important to note that racial and ethnic minorities were disproportionately undercounted in previous censuses, and are more likely to live in areas designated by the Census Bureau as hard-to-count (HTC). The uneven accuracy of previous census counts – particularly for racial and ethnic minorities, people with low income, people with limited English proficiency, and others – raises serious civil rights concerns about equality of political representation and economic opportunity.

For the 2010 Census, the task will be both particularly important and especially daunting in the Gulf Coast region, which is still recovering from the unprecedented and catastrophic combination of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the multiple failures of government preparation and response that have impeded recovery.

Consider the scope of devastation caused by the storms and their aftermath.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency designated 117 counties along the Gulf Coast as disaster areas in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The storm affected a wide area: residents of 31 parishes in Louisiana, 49 counties in Mississippi, and eight counties in Alabama were eligible for Individual Assistance.2 Low-lying counties closest to the Gulf of Mexico suffered the greatest damage and displacement of individuals and families. In New Orleans alone, 80 percent of the city was flooded, 107,000 occupied housing units were flooded and an additional 27,000 sustained wind damage.  The city lost about half its pre-Katrina population of 455,046, and in spite of relatively rapid population growth in recent years, is estimated to have about 100,000 fewer residents than before the flooding.3

The most recently available data from the American Community Survey (ACS), reflecting conditions in 2007, support the concern that the road home for displaced homeowners, a characteristic that indicates longer-term ties to a community, has been difficult and slow, and that rental housing for residents seeking temporary housing in the area while they rebuild is in shorter supply than before Hurricane Katrina.  For example, in Orleans Parish, the rental vacancy rate was about three and a half times the homeowner vacancy rate (7.9 percent v. 2.2 percent) in 2000.  In 2007, while both vacancy rates were significantly higher in the storm's aftermath, the homeowner vacancy rate had more than tripled and the rental vacancy rate was less than twice as high as the homeowner vacancy rate (11.7 percent v. 7.1 percent). In Louisiana's Jefferson Parish, the rental vacancy rate of 7.2 percent was virtually the same in 2000 and in 2007, but the homeowner vacancy rate almost doubled, from 1.2 percent in 2000 to 2.3 percent in 2007.  A similar pattern occurred in the hardest hit Mississippi communities.  In Harrison County, homeowner vacancy rates were less than a fifth of rental vacancy rates in 2000 (1.9 percent v. 10.6 percent), but jumped closer to half in 2007 (3.4 percent v. 8.7 percent). These data suggest that many homeowners were still working to return home two years after the hurricane; the 2008 ACS estimates will help researchers evaluate this trend further.

Demographic and socio-economic conditions in Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states put them at high risk for an undercount even before Katrina, and that risk fell disproportionately on minority communities. For example, in Louisiana, 41.5 percent of Blacks and nearly 30 percent of Asian Americans lived in HTC count areas in 2000, compared to 8.0 percent of Non-Hispanic Whites.  In Mississippi, 36.6 percent of Blacks lived in HTC areas, compared to 7.8 percent of Non-Hispanic Whites. In Alabama, nearly 30 percent of Blacks lived in HTC areas, compared to 4.5 percent of Non-Hispanic Whites.  These racial and ethnic differences point to the potentially destructive impact of distorted, uneven counts on equality and economic opportunity, and the importance of efforts by the Census Bureau and its partner organizations to invest in reaching HTC populations.4

Unless an alternative source is cited, the U.S. Census Bureau is the source of population, housing, and socio-economic data in this report.  The source for data from 2000 is the 2000 decennial census.  The source for population and housing estimates for intercensal years (such as 2005 and 2007) is the Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program, as noted.  The Census Bureau publishes data from the American Community Survey (ACS), which replaced the traditional census long form starting in 2005, in late summer of each year following the year of data collection.  For example, 2005 ACS estimates were released starting in August 2006.  The Census Bureau produces one-year ACS estimates for all places with a population of 65,000 or greater, and three-year estimates for places with a population of 20,000 or greater (starting with 2005-2007).  Data users can access all of these data most easily through American FactFinder on the Census Bureau's web site.

Next Section: Importance of the 2010 Census to the Gulf Coast Region

2. Federal Emergency Management agency website section on 2005 disaster declarations.  http://www.fema.gov/news/disasters.fema?year=2005  See Katrina declarations for designated states and counties.

3. Spencer, Naomi, "Three years since Hurricane Katrina," Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2008.

4. O'Hare, William and Edwin Quiamboa, Analysis of U.S. Census Bureau Tract-Level Planning Database With Census 2000 Data, based on "hard to count" scores of 60 or higher, Annie E. Casey Foundation, April 2009.

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