updated 3/15/2006 12:03:53 AM ET 2006-03-15T05:03:53

By the time the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina rolls around, New Orleans will have only about half of the population it had before the storm, according to a study released Wednesday.

The projections were contained in a study prepared for the city by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank.

Katrina emptied New Orleans of almost all its estimated 465,000 inhabitants after the storm struck on Aug. 29. The city’s population has bounced back to an estimated 189,000, according to state officials.

The RAND study projects that the population will stand at 272,000 by September 2008 — or about 58 percent of the pre-Katrina level.

Sections of the city that suffered only wind damage or minor flooding are filling up now.

“But when you look at other parts of the city with serious flood damage, the amount of work needed to make those areas livable again is likely to take a lengthy time to repair,” said Narayan Sastry, the study’s project leader.

Greg Rigamer, head of GCR & Associates Inc., a New Orleans consulting firm, offered a somewhat more optimistic projection: a city population of 250,000 to 275,000 by the end of 2006.

“Then, it’s going to slow down because the efforts to recover the remaining areas of going to be difficult,” he said.

Poor residents expected to relocate
The RAND report paints a bleak picture for the city’s pre-storm residents who lived in poverty, an overwhelming number of whom are black and many of whom did not have cars to evacuate the city before Katrina.

“Lack of transportation will also make it difficult for poor evacuees to travel back to the city to evaluate the condition of their former residences and either to begin the process of repairing their homes or to find a new place to live,” the study said.

The study said higher costs of building materials and a shortage of contractors will probably contribute to higher rents, and “this implies that fewer low-wage and nonworking people will live in New Orleans.” Before Katrina, roughly half of the city’s population rented.

The study also said that many parents driven out of the city may be reluctant to return their children to New Orleans’ troubled schools.

The report also said the experiences of the first waves of people returning to New Orleans could be influential. “If early returnees experience a difficult time ... the overall effect will be to reduce the likelihood of others returning,” the study said.

In issuing the study, RAND warned that it had to work quickly, had limited data, and was confronted with considerable uncertainties in New Orleans in drawing its conclusions. It said more study will be needed.

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