By now, most folks in south Louisiana have seen the maps. They're generated by government agencies, private groups and newspapers, and usually include clusters of dots or circles depicting where hurricane evacuees are now located. Places like Atlanta and Houston appear like crows' nests and, surprisingly, there are tiny indicators in places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska.
The dispersion of people is also clearly seen in headlines: Home prices in Baton Rouge are the highest in the nation, up 27 percent for the second quarter. Evacuees are credited with a 17.5 percent spike in Houston murders. Louisiana's Road Home program, which will distribute money to get people back into their homes, saw initial registration swell to more than 100,000 applicants.
The shifting of lives from along the Gulf Coast is still staggering to comprehend, comparable maybe to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and possibly the Great Flood of 1927. Certainly, more than anything else from Cajun lore, it harkens back to the Acadian exile. Still, it stands alone when stacked against them all. According to state figures, Katrina and Rita displaced more than 780,000 people in Louisiana alone.
The end result could potentially be a loss of federal funding, which is based on population figures, and the loss of one or even two congressional seats over the next 14 years. There also are indications that the shift of political power from New Orleans to other regions around the state -- which began as a steady trickle in the 1960s -- accelerated overnight to a ... well, flood in 2005. It's a sullen cause-and-effect scenario in which population equals money and stroke, and the loss of population diminishes those key indicators of a state's health. Demographers and political observers believe the trend, which has not yet been officially measured, will continue despite initial recovery efforts.
"No one is geared up to take a real census except the U.S. Census Bureau and they only do it every 10 years," says State Demographer Karen Paterson. "And it's a moving target right now because people don't stay in one place. A lot of things are still unresolved."
At deadline, the census was set to release its American Community Survey for cities with populations greater than 65,000 and less than 250,000. It has a large margin of error and only counts people living in households. Another population survey for the devastated areas, this time based on the state's administrative records, is expected in December.
"Everyone is waiting on Katrina numbers -- and this isn't it," Paterson says.
However, a rapid-response survey recently conducted in the New Orleans region, including St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, could be released in the coming months. While it will make for an interesting read, Paterson says the real scoop will be dished by the official 2010 decennial census.
What we already know is that Louisiana was hemorrhaging residents prior to last year's hurricane season. Based on the most recent and complete statewide census survey released six years ago, 75,000 more people moved out of Louisiana than moved in from 1995 to 2000. New Orleans lost more than 47,000 people during the same period.
Elliott Stonecipher, a political analyst and demographer based in Shreveport, says the storms have put this historical trend into hyper-drive. Although recent reports, some using postal records, show that the wave of people moving back into New Orleans has slowed, Stonecipher believes a second wave of people moving out is about to occur.
"We don't want to believe that any of the people that stayed are going to leave, but they are," he says. "They're going to leave because the schools didn't work out. They're going to leave because of Entergy. They're going to leave because of the mayor's race and state politics. They are fed up and they do not want to wait anymore."
This is the loss Stonecipher says will largely be picked up by the 2010 census, which will in turn be used to determine federal funding, the number of seats Louisiana has in Congress, and the shape of new state and federal district boundaries.
Even before the storms, Louisiana needed another 7,000 new residents over the next five years to keep from losing a congressional seat. In fact, a 30-year estimate by the census bureau ranked Louisiana 49th overall in growth. The situation is so dire that Stonecipher says another congressional seat could be lost following the 2020 population census unless something "unforeseen" happens.
The traditional epicenter of power in state politics is expected to shift as well. As more people leave the New Orleans region, Stonecipher says its once-fabled hold over the state Legislature will loosen further. Out of 144 total seats in the House and Senate, 21 currently encompass or touch Orleans Parish. If New Orleans' population doesn't return to pre-K levels, the city may wind up with just a few seats in each chamber.
The big winner in all of this will be the Baton Rouge region. Outlying parishes like Livingston and Ascension were already growing due to so-called "white flight," and the city's latest school enrollments exceeded expectations. Proximity to the interstate system and the New Orleans region has helped.
Exactly how many people are in Baton Rouge now is anybody's guess. One economist says the city's population will grow by 50,000 when everything becomes official. Meanwhile, the Baton Rouge mayor's office has released a 100,000 head-count figure, and one federal survey found a spike of 60,000 earlier this year.
"I have a sense people are going to be staying there," Paterson says of Baton Rouge.
The sleeper success story in this population shakeout may be cities like Houma and Thibodaux. As the state dispenses money to people for rebuilding and the way of life in places like St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes doesn't improve, families might look farther down the coast for a similar lifestyle.
"It just seems to make so much sense to me," Stonecipher says. "It depends how serious we are about coastal restoration issues and hurricane issues. Absent those fears, though, these areas could disproportionately gain."
Of course, anything can happen between now and 2010. The New Orleans region will continue its rebirth as federal dollars fill state coffers and homes are rebuilt in increasing numbers. But beneath the surface, Stonecipher says a significant segment of the population is going to grow weary with the slow pace of recovery and the incessant noise of political chatter.
"Some people might be fooled because of all the money being spent and because they can see the brick and mortar," he says. "But dollars being spent does not mean healthy and fundamental change. We can't allow ourselves to believe every single person is coming home and that they'll stay here when they do."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.