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Repopulating Orleans story focuses on sensational

In academia, there are those who often seem more interested in calling attention to themselves than just doing their jobs of teaching and providing useful research. The self-promotion efforts of athletes, entertainers, reality-show participants, and politicians pale in comparison to some of the things I see regularly in my profession. But they need accomplices to pull off this showmanship, so when their “discoveries” comport with the media’s agenda and ideology (see an example here) and its need to follow them, both can fulfill their desires.

It’s not always intentional; sometimes the media will take some research out of context, and other times (quite frankly) since few journalists have anything more than a surface understanding of the topics they cover, the media will swallow whole what is fed to them by some in academia. I don’t know if either holds true in this case, but certainly it was not at all responsible for the media to report and for the researchers to allow them to promote

… if the post-Katrina city were limited to the population previously living in areas that were undamaged by the storm – that is, if nobody were able to return to damaged neighborhoods – New Orleans is at risk of losing more than 80% of its black population …. if the future city were limited to the population previously living in zones undamaged by Katrina it would risk losing about 50% of its white residents but more than 80% of its black population.

Were this written in September, 2005, it might have been interesting speculation. But it’s now about five months later, and the numbers they use are wholly unrealistic as proven by subsequent events. To begin, let’s review the population as best known in New Orleans when Katrina hit, from the Jul. 1, 2004 estimates from the Census Bureau (oddly, the researchers ignore these and use the 2000 actual census – usually not a bad strategy, but it’s not good in this case because New Orleans lost about 5 percent of its population just in those four years).

According to it, New Orleans (Orleans Parish) had 462,269 people, of which 313,402 were black, 132,314 white, and 16,553 of “other” races. Taking these researchers’ claims, this means that New Orleans could wind up with just 62,681 blacks and 66,157 whites (and that’s putting the black total at 80 percent, not “more than”).

But then consider first a Congressional Research Service report they used, which says that 272,000 blacks and 101,000 non-blacks evacuated. Doing the math tells you that meant 41,402 blacks and (assuming the ratio of 8:1 whites/others prior to the storm holds) 42,548 whites remained (and with other races a city total of 89,269). With these numbers not far from their initial guesses, this should have alerted these researchers immediately to a fundamental problem in their study – that their 80/50 assumption is that all parts of all “damaged” neighborhoods would not be rebuilt was way overboard.

Now consider estimates provided by Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, that at least by December the city had 136,681 people. Without going into the methodology here (part of a future academic presentation I’ll be making at a professional meeting which will predict the number of registered voters in Orleans come the rescheduled election days, who they are, and how they likely will vote), that figure can be decomposed into an estimate of 67,691 blacks and 62,699 whites. In other words, before the end of the year was out, already these researchers’ numbers were quite shaky.

Now about two months later, people continue to flow into Orleans. And what these guys fail to appreciate is the details of the plan considered by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission which do not at all imply that nothing in the damaged areas will be rebuilt, and also that more housing will be constructed in higher ground in other areas. (This is not the wisest plan, but it seems to be the one that will be pursued.) In short, other estimates that argue New Orleans will approach or even exceed a quarter million people in the next couple of years seem much more valid.

Were these researchers more cautious and mindful in drawing conclusions, and the media less focused on trying to make for a “bigger” story, more temperate estimates with more conditions attached to them would have been reported. (At least this news story added a dose of realism in recognizing the conclusions as improbable; some didn’t. This one even downplays the sensational claims in favor of analyzing other aspects.) And that would mean watchdogs like myself would have written on a different subject today, and gladly so.

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