RAND Study Estimates New Orleans Population to Climb to About 272,000 in 2008

For Release

March 15, 2006

The population of New Orleans will likely reach about 272,000 in September 2008 – amounting to 56 percent of the population of 485,000 before Hurricane Katrina struck in August, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.

The report, produced by the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, estimates the city's current population at about 155,000 and forecasts it will rise to about 198,000 in September. Only a few thousand people were living in New Orleans last September.

The new RAND study provides the most detailed estimates to date of the likely rate at which residents may return to New Orleans. It was prepared at the request of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and is designed to help government officials plan the city's rebuilding.

The study says a key factor determining how quickly New Orleans can be repopulated is the availability of housing. The faster housing becomes available, the faster people can return to the city. Services, employment, federal funding and schools will be restored more rapidly as the population rises, the report says.

RAND researchers found that homes of about 55 percent of the city's population – 268,000 people – suffered severe damage after parts of New Orleans were inundated by floodwaters more than 4 feet deep when the hurricane hit and levees were breeched. Rebuilding the most severely devastated areas of the city where these people lived will to a large extent determine the future of the city's population, the report says.

The study says policymakers can speed the repopulation rate of New Orleans by enacting policies and procedures to streamline the process for obtaining permits to repair and reconstruct housing, and this has begun.

Repopulation could also be accelerated if government officials provide clear and comprehensive information about progress and the ultimate goals for restoring essential city services and systems such as public transportation, levees, public safety, public education and hospitals, the report says.

“If officials give clear and complete information to the residents and businesses of New Orleans, people can start to make solid plans, and this will encourage the reconstruction and rebuilding process,” said Narayan Sastry, a RAND researcher and co-author of the report.

Other authors of the report – titled “The Repopulation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina” – are Kevin McCarthy, D.J. Peterson, and Michael Pollard, all of RAND.

Central to their analysis, the RAND researchers outlined the major factors shaping the migration decisions of the New Orleans population. The study says:

  • While housing availability and employment opportunity are the factors that most limit the repopulation of New Orleans, the decisions and experiences – both positive and negative – of friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors have a tremendous impact upon the choices of others.
  • Rebuilding New Orleans involves many interdependent processes, exemplified by the relationship between housing and employment. For example, many businesses are short of workers because there is not enough housing and the price of housing has increased. As a result, many workers are commuting from long distances. Others are unable to commute because they cannot afford cars, and because public transportation has been reduced.
  • Uncertainties and delays in federal funding for repairing and upgrading the levees, underwriting flood insurance, and restoring essential services are likely to slow the repopulation process.

“The extent of the human and physical costs of Katrina on New Orleans is virtually unprecedented,” McCarthy said. “But the uncertainties surrounding the recovery are probably the single most important factor in determining the pace and extent of the recovery. The more government at every level can do to reduce these uncertainties, the more rapid the conclusion of the recovery process is likely to be.”

Using housing and population data for the city, in combination with federal floodwater depth data from last Sept. 10 – a day of near maximum flooding – the report provides a series of estimates about the rate at which New Orleans will be repopulated in the three years following Hurricane Katrina. The study does not examine population changes beyond September 2008.

The RAND report cautions that many currently unknown factors could influence the growth in the city's population, and that the population estimates it makes are based on limited data gathered in a short time period.

As a way to track the repopulation and rebuilding process, the study suggests that governmental agencies collect better data on a regular basis. For example, detailed information by age, household size, employment and socio-economic status of residents will help officials know how to best provide basic services – such as schooling, healthcare, infrastructure and public safety – and to gauge how well the recovery process is going.

The study also says that a significant number of the homes located in federally designated flood zones were not covered by insurance, suggesting a need to review federal programs and guidelines. In addition, many of those with insurance were inadequately covered, and so may find it difficult to rebuild – particularly in light of rising construction costs and stricter new building codes.

RAND used charitable donations and funds earned on contracts to provide funding for the study. The nonprofit research organization created the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute in December with seven universities to develop a long-term vision and strategy to help build a better future for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The universities working with the Institute are: Jackson State University and the University of Southern Mississippi in that state; Tulane University, the University of New Orleans and Xavier University in Louisiana; and Tuskegee University and the University of South Alabama in that state.

The analysis draws from an extensive array of sources, including: data gathered from officials at all levels of government; a local planning and consulting firm; research organizations; local and national news media reporting; and telephone interviews with professionals in fields such as insurance, planning, building and inspections, and employment, among others.

The study was conducted through RAND Labor and Population, which examines issues involving U.S. labor markets, the demographics of families and children, social welfare policy, the social and economic functioning of the elderly, and economic and social change in developing countries.

About the RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.