New Orleans Population Shrinks By 1/3 In 10 Years

VIDEO: 5 years after Katrina hit, there are signs of recovery along the Gulf Coast.PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH Hurricane Katrina Then and Now

New Orleans may always hold the nickname "The Big Easy," but its population isn't quite as big as it was 10 years ago.

The population in New Orleans shrunk by nearly 30 percent in 10 years according to new data released last week. Much of that loss was attributed to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina which devastated the city in 2005.

The U.S. Census Bureau released local 2010 Census data, which revealed New Orleans's population stood at 343,829 people in 2010. Ten years earlier, the city's population sat at 484,674 people, reflecting a 29.1 percent change in the population.

This drop in New Orleans' population size is credited to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive and costly natural disaster in the history of the United States.

"It's obviously a smaller city," Allison Plyer, chief demographer for the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, said. "That drop was very much expected. Obviously, Katrina had a huge impact."

Known for its rich traditions from cultivating the foundations of jazz music to the lively atmosphere and history of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, the city endured the worst of the 2005 storm. Nearly 80 percent of its population fled the city to safer locations in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, but it remains unclear how many of these evacuees eventually returned to New Orleans.

Before Katrina hit, the city's racial composition was overwhelmingly black with over 67 percent of the population identifying themselves as black or African American in the 2000 census. In 2010, this percentage dropped to 60, with the city losing 119,000 people who identified themselves as black or African American in 2010 while New Orleans saw an influx in its Hispanic population.

In addition to the change in the cultural landscape of the city, the housing sector took a noticeable hit from the storm as well. Prior to Katrina, only 12.5 percent of housing units were unoccupied, according to 2000 census data, but the 2010 census revealed the occupancy number declined with 25 percent of housing units listed as unoccupied.

The Big Easy After Katrina

"You drive through portions of the city that were fully occupied before the storm and now have scattered, abandoned housing all throughout them," Plyer said. "And you know exactly why those homes are abandoned."

James "Jimbo" Walsh, a music composition professor at Loyola University New Orleans, evacuated the city to Lafayette, La., in the days before the storm, returning three months later once power was restored to his home in New Orleans.

Walsh, a 15 year resident of New Orleans who plays the keyboard, guitar and bass, never doubted his return to the city due to his connection to the city's appreciation for music.

"I never thought about not going back because I fit in here," Walsh said. "I'm a musician, and they really care about music here, and I have never experienced anything like it."

Data collected from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center showed population estimates gradually increased in the years following the storm. According to the center's estimates, the city's population a year after the storm was 210,768 but by 2009, increased by over 140,000 people due to businesses recovering from the storm's impact and displaced people returning to the city.

"The first year, the only people who could come back were people with plenty of insurance and cash in the bank that they could draw on. Then the federal government provided assistance for underinsured homeowners to rebuild their homes," Plyer said. "They are still being dispersed, so some people are still waiting for their grants to help them rebuild."

Government initiatives, such as the "Road Home" program, which provides eligible homeowners affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita with up to $150,000 in compensation for their losses in order to get them back into their homes, along with businesses in the area are dedicated to attracting more people to the city and enhancing its prosperity.

"Hurricane Katrina was a transformative moment for New Orleans," Amy Liu, senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, said. "The city has been working very hard to not recreate the status quo, but instead build the city and region better and more prosperous than it was before the storm. This means creating a more diverse and productive set of industries to drive job growth, increasing the skills and opportunities of its people, and improving the coastal health and overall sustainability of the region. "

New Orleans Is Smaller After Katrina

Though Katrina inflicted tremendous damage and significantly diminished the city's population, New Orleans residents like Walsh hope government efforts to return New Orleanians to their homes coupled with the dedication of the community will give the city the boost it needs to ensure its historically vibrant culture remains strong.

"I'm madly in love with the city, utterly completely infatuated. But the damage it took during Katrina is a living pain in my heart," Walsh said. "After the storm I felt a much greater sense of civic responsibility and the need to actually take care of my neighbors and friends and the city and to actually participate in the social rebuilding of New Orleans. There is no other place like it."