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Population expected to rebound by 2010

The Mississippi Gulf Coast population hasn’t yet bounced back from the losses experienced after Hurricane Katrina. But Dr. Barbara Logue, senior demographer for the State of Mississippi, believes the population will be building back and that it isn’t necessary to revise her population growth projections for 2010, 2015 and 2020 that were made just before the hurricane hit in August 2005.

According to the U.S. Census, the county with the largest population also had the largest number of residents lost. Harrison County fell from 193,187 to 171,875. Hancock County’s population estimated at 46,546 in 2000 was down to 40,421 in 2006. Jackson County’s estimated population in 2000 135,571 fell to 130,577 in 2006.

Logue estimates that by 2010, Harrison County will be home to 197,103 people.

Jackson County’s population will increase to 140,832. And Hancock County’s population should reach 49,548.

While optimistic, Logue notes that there was so much devastation in four of the cities most impacted — Bay St. Louis, Long Beach, Pass Christian and Waveland — that the U.S. Census took the unusual step of announcing they were unable to count the population there in 2006.

“Although we spent considerable time researching how to estimate the populations for these four places, in the end we were not able to produce estimates that we felt were reliable enough to release to the public,” the U.S. Census says.

“The U.S. Census is the best people counter on the planet in the history of the planet, and if they declined to do it, I take that seriously,” Logue says. “It is awful hard to count people under the best of circumstances. They look at tax returns, and get addresses from one tax year to next year. They used a special methodology after Katrina and found when they used the tax returns, the numbers seemed too low. So they used additional data from the postal service on change of address forms. Even with that, they were still not comfortable putting a number on those four communities.”

Pointing to growth

The predictions for 2010 were done using the latest migration trends, birth and death rates, trending out the recent past into the future. Logue thinks signs all point to a continuing population growth on the Coast.

“You have a lot of construction going on,” she says. “Bridges are getting back in shape. Things are getting better. People follow the jobs. The main reason for migration is job creation. If the jobs are there and people have a place to live, they will come back quickly. The casinos, I know, are flourishing. I think optimism is justified. I work with economists and they seem to be pretty optimistic. If people follow the economy and everybody does their bit, we will be in pretty good shape.”

Economist Dr. Charles Tiebout in 1956 theorizes that people vote with their feet in an economic response to the actions of local government. He in effect said that households will choose a residence based on the desired level of services provided by local governments.

“In a similar sense, many people affected by the hurricane have ‘voted with their feet’ to find other places to live that fulfill their needs and desires,” says Dr. Pete Walley, director of long -range planning for Mississippi. “That is not to say that many will not vote with their feet to return to the Coast at a later time. But individuals generally will take actions that provide for their immediate well-being.”

Walley says one effort that may give some insight into the barriers that must be overcome to get people to return to the Coast is to identify and contact a significant sample of people that left the Coast to find out their needs and desires for them to return to the Coast. Governments and non-profits could use those responses to develop or enhance actions that might accelerate the return of former residents and entice new residents. If such a survey is underway, Walley is unaware of it.

‘Process’ of rebuilding

“Also, the initial impact of the hurricane and rebuilding efforts are beginning to become ‘old news’ while the processes consist of many details that do not get many peoples’ attention,” Walley said. “It will be important to identify and keep a focus on key issues that affect the rebuilding. It is of little comfort to the people affected, but rebuilding is a process, long-term in nature and somewhat uncertain as to the outcome.”

Unlike the New Orleans area, the Gulf Coast population in Mississippi is approaching pre-Katrina levels.

“In fact, employment is only 5% below what it was in early 2005,” says Marianne Hill, senior economist for the Institutions of Higher Learning. “But much of the recovery in population is due to people coming to the Coast for construction and other work. And, in the not-too-distant future, new condominium development will bring more new residents.”

People who were forced from their homes by Hurricane Katrina and who have not yet returned to the Coast may have settled elsewhere, and would find it difficult to return. There are, however, many who would like to return.

“They need jobs and housing,” Hill says. “The number one problem is often housing — there is a shortage of housing and skyrocketing insurance rates add to the cost. Jobs are also an issue. Many smaller businesses have not recovered from the storm, and it will take a while for such jobs to return.”

Hill recommends initiatives to provide attractive housing at reasonable rates for the workforce, and programs for smaller businesses whose growth helps generate needed jobs. Childcare availability and workforce training are important.

“Working parents require adequate childcare, a problem that several nonprofit organizations stress,” Hill says. “Construction-related jobs will continue to be available and more can be done to ensure that local residents have access to these jobs. Residents need the appropriate training. Childcare, again, may be needed as well as subsidies for transportation to enable participation in such training.”

Local governments

The picture is uneven regarding how Coast government revenues will continue to be impacted by the loss of taxable property and loss of residents. Hill says some Coast governments, particularly cities with casinos, will not have difficulty securing the funds they need. They will be able to borrow in the short-term, if necessary, based on the strength of projected revenue growth. Other towns are not as fortunate, and will continue to struggle over the coming year or longer. Hill said suitable loan programs could be crafted to alleviate this problem.

A study was done by the Rockefeller Institute that identified several problems facing local governments (see www.rockinst.org “GulfGov Reports”). Approximately $79 million in loans made by the Mississippi Development Bank to towns post-Katrina become due in October, and it is not clear how these obligations can be met.

“In fact, many towns would benefit from further loans, and from assistance in planning their recovery strategies,” Hill says. “Cooperation among the different levels of government and among the different stakeholders in the towns will be key in determining how successful recovery efforts in these areas will be.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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