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NEW ORLEANS (NNPA)--Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated communities along the Gulf Coast, elected officials and community leaders are still struggling to rebuild and upgrade those communities. As the 2010 Census count nears, a number of leaders have expressed concerns about how an inaccurate count might impede post-Katrina recovery efforts.
With many residents still displaced and living in other parts of the U.S., it is likely that areas like southeast Louisiana will be hit hard by a lower Census count, which will mean fewer resources for those struggling to rebuild their lives and communities.
To proactively address the problem, on Wednesday community leaders from nearly 50 Gulf Coast advocacy groups sent a letter to Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, and other Members of Congress calling for a subcommittee field hearing to address concerns about the 2010 Census count in a region still reeling from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The decennial count of every person living in the United States is never easy, but these groups say that the upcoming census will face a number of unique challenges, especially in the Gulf Coast region.
"It's widely known that the census is more likely to miss people of color, people who speak a language other than English, and the poor," said Trap Bonner of Moving Forward Gulf Coast, an advocacy group focused on rebuilding the region. "But the destruction of entire communities and the displacement of thousands of residents along the Gulf Coast nearly four years ago compound the usual difficulties the Census Bureau faces in enumerating these hard-to-count groups."
The suggestion by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that displaced New Orleans residents be allowed to be counted as people living in New Orleans even though they are living elsewhere sparked a heated debate earlier this month.
"An area of major concern relates to New Orleanians working to return here. Many are repairing their homes, and others are trying to work out other life details," Nagin spokesman James Ross said in an e-mail to the local daily paper. "Mayor Nagin has called for all New Orleanians to list New Orleans as home if they plan to move back."
"Any individual who does something like that is going to hurt the place where they are living, and hurt New Orleans," said Katherine Smith, a Census Bureau spokeswoman.
Census spokesman Michael Cook told The Associated Press Monday that there are no plans to make special accommodations for counting displaced New Orleanians if they plan to come back.
"We are mandated, per the law, to ask people to fill out the forms as per their residence on April 1, 2010, and that's for all individuals," Cook said.
While there have been varying reports about the size of the New Orleans populace post-Katrina, with some demographers placing the number at 75 percent of the pre-storm population, the 2010 Census is expected to provide the first irrefutable count of the city's present population.
Demographic analyst Elliott Stonecipher told The Associated Press that Mayor Nagin has gone "to the ultimate degree of foolishness" to openly suggest that people be counted as residents in a city that they hope to return to. If it happened, other cities and parishes would suffer, he said.
"The mayor has never advocated that anyone simply violate any rules," Nagin James Ross told The Associated Press. "What he's done is said, there should be a mechanism for addressing this, given the reality of Hurricane Katrina and the rebuilding that is occurring."
Ross said Nagin hopes to discuss with Census officials his thoughts about finding a way to have those "in the process of returning, who are close to returning and will be here very shortly" counted as residents.
Census Bureau spokeswoman Katherine Smith told wsj.com, The Wall Street Journal's online website, that the Census Bureau won't change the rules to accommodate displaced New Orleans residents, but encouraged those who want to be counted in New Orleans to relocate by April 1.
"We've had our challenges" with Nagin, Smith added. "But we're trying to be available for anything he wants to discuss. But our hands are tied as far as what he tells his constituents."
The Census population count that starts with surveys going out in March holds considerable weight, helping to determine the number of congressional districts each state has--Louisiana could lose a seat--and distribution of $300 billion a year in federal funds.
The flip side of the debate about displaced residents is that counting residents who don't live in the city as New Orleans residents would adversely affect other cities and states, including those where displaced residents live and require city services and areas in Louisiana that might object to New Orleans getting an unfair political advantage over them.
Joey Durel, president of Lafayette Parish and city, told wsj.com that if New Orleans doesn't have a fair count, it could potentially keep representation it should lose. "Lafayette could be losing an opportunity to gain more clout," he added.
When the census is off by even a small percentage, it can deprive local communities of millions of dollars in much needed federal aid for hospitals, schools, roads, disaster preparedness and other public services.
On average, states receive roughly $1,200 annually, or $12,000 over a decade, for each person counted in the census. Figures for some states in distress, such as Louisiana, are as high as $2,695 per capita annually or $26,950 per capita over a decade--which is federal support funding that is desperately needed to rebuild the Gulf Coast.
"Groups like mine are working within our communities to heighten public awareness about the 2010 Census and to encourage response to census forms," said Bonner. "However, Congress' action to address these exceptional circumstances is crucial to achieving a fair and accurate count in the Gulf Coast."