Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard Parish top a U.S. Census Bureau list of fast-growing counties released Thursday.
But some local officials aren't happy that the agency estimated the city's population to be less than 240,000.
The number, an estimate for July 2007, falls more than 30,000 short of at least one other estimate, and efforts based on more recent data had New Orleans topping 300,000 people. The city's population was nearly 454,000 in July 2005, the month before Hurricane Katrina hit and scattered hundreds of thousands of people along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.
City leaders, who obtained the census estimates before their formal public release, said they intend to challenge the New Orleans figure as too low. The estimates have implications for the distribution of certain grant dollars.
Ed Blakely, the city's recovery chief, said the fact that the estimates are months old also does no favors for the city, which is trying to attract new investment as it continues to rebuild.
"This comes at a very unfortunate time," Blakely said, calling it confusing and "dispiriting to have numbers come out that are that old."
The population of Orleans Parish, which comprises the city of New Orleans, grew 13.8 percent from July 2006 to July 2007 — from 210,198 to an estimated 239,124, according to the Census Bureau. That percentage increase was topped only by St. Bernard, which grew 42.9 percent -- nearly 6,000 people — to an estimated 19,826.
The suburban New Orleans parish was virtually wiped out by Katrina and the levee breaches. It had been the nation's fastest loser of population, falling from 64,683 in July 2005 to 13,875 in July 2006.
Frustrating pace of recovery
It's not clear how long the growth will last or at what rate. While local officials say federal money to repair public infrastructure has started flowing more freely, the pace of recovery has been frustrating for many residents, and people are still deciding whether to return or stay.
The census estimate considered data including births, deaths, tax filings and address changes.
At least one estimate is in line with the bureau's, but another, based on utility hookups and activity, puts New Orleans' July 2007 population at 273,598, and at just over 300,000 earlier this year. Yet another estimate, based on Postal Service data, found that New Orleans had two-thirds as many households in July 2007 as it did before Katrina.
Greg Harper, a demographer for the Census Bureau, said the 2010 Census should offer the clearest picture of the post-Katrina landscape.
He said that although the bureau spent considerable time on its estimate and used additional data in an effort to be as accurate as possible, "it's very hard to say at this point what is the truth for something so huge and outside our normal processing system."
The bureau said the South had 70 of the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties from July 2006 to July 2007; 22 were in the West and eight in the Midwest.
Arizona's Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, added the most people in that period — 102,000, bringing its population to nearly 3.9 million. Los Angeles County remained the nation's most populous with 9.9 million people, though its population dropped about 2,000 over the year.