Ten years ago this month Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans and more than a thousand people died. A quarter of a million more fled their homes, which were damaged or destroyed in the devastating floods.
A lot has changed in the past decade, but the recovery has been uneven. White residents are doing better than they were before the storm hit, while African Americans are struggling to catch up from the storm's aftermath.
Interview Highlights: Allison Plyer
On the state of New Orleans a decade after Hurricane Katrina
"No one would have guessed how well the city is doing 10 years later. We have, depending on how you measure it, around 80 percent of the population we did before the storm. The metro area, which was also was damaged, has about 93 percent of the population it had before the storm. Our economy is actually doing really well — actually better than before the storm in many measures: in terms of job growth, entrepreneurship and many other indicators."
On demographic shifts caused by Katrina
"We have 97,000 fewer African Americans in the city and 9,000 fewer whites, and about 6,000 more Hispanics and about 3,000 more Asians and others. The demographic shift has definitely been significant. Even with that, before the storm, the city was 66 percent African American and it's still 60 percent. So definitely still a majority, minority city."
On the increase of Latino populations in New Orleans suburbs
"That's an interesting phenomena demographers called hurricane chasers, where you have single Latino men who are sort of a very mobile labor force and they'll go from one place to another, often times in Florida, following a disaster to help rebuild. And our disaster was so massive that there was rebuilding going on for years, so after several years a lot of those single men settled down, brought their families here, and now we see an increase of Latinos, particularly in the suburbs, almost doubling in the last 10 years."
"It's interesting down here, if you talk to folks, it's almost like a tale of two cities and it often splits on racial lines."
On economic trends after natural disasters
"We know from the disaster literature, a couple of things: that whatever the trends were before the disaster tend to get accelerated after the disaster, and also folks that were doing okay, or doing well, actually benefit from all the new infrastructure. But folks who were poor or had poor health, it's really hard for them to recover. The shock is often too much.
So what we're seeing is growing income inequality as many of our white households are doing much better but black households are not. We see employment rates for black men are virtually the same that they were before the storm, but for white men they are much better. It's interesting down here, if you talk to folks, it's almost like a tale of two cities and it often splits on racial lines.
So you'll talk to white folks and they'll say, 'Wow! The city is doing much better. Never been better, all these great things are happening. Entrepreneurship, the economy is great, our wages are up. Etcetera, etcetera.' But you'll talk to black folks and they'll say, 'Things are much worse, a lot of our neighbors aren't here. It's been such a struggle to rebuild. I don't even had some of the business networks I used to have.'"
On the importance of demographers for the city's future
"The numbers that we put out are really to help leaders and business leaders and elected leaders understand that not everybody is doing well and if we want to be successful in the future and resilient to the shocks that we certainly will feel going forward, we need to reduce our poverty rates and make sure more people are benefiting from the economic strength that we're starting to experience."
"We've worked incredibly hard to preserve our history and our culture ... And it's an interesting combination of sort of preservation and also innovation and it's making for a new New Orleans which hopefully preserves all the good and at the same time makes things better than they were before."
On New Orleans' blooming entrepreneurship
"There's a lot of folks who have gotten engaged in our entrepreneurship boom here. There's a lot of folks who really wanted the city to recover and some of them actually came here and started their businesses as a way to help the city recover. One example is Receivables Exchange — it's a company that started here and has actually gone public and they started here specifically because they wanted to bring their economic clout to this city. But it's done really really well. There's just a myriad of other entrepreneurs. We have a lot of social entrepreneurs who are coming up with innovations for schools or for water management or for blighted properties. We have techie entrepreneurs and a lot of them wanted to help the city rebuild or wanted to help innovate in new important ways to help with some of our social problems."
On preservation and innovation
"We've worked incredibly hard to preserve our history and our culture. We still have obviously Mardi Gras and Second Line and jazz and all kinds of amazing aspects of our culture that are really rooted certainly in African American culture and they're still very much going on. And it's an interesting combination of sort of preservation and also innovation and it's making for a new New Orleans which hopefully preserves all the good and at the same time makes things better than they were before."
- Allison Plyer, executive director and chief demographer at The Data Center. She tweets @allisonplyer.