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500,000 haven’t gone home

JOEL KOTKIN, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The City: A Global History." He is working on a study of upward mobility in Houston.

ALMOST A YEAR after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, media attention remains riveted on the rebuilding of New Orleans. But what happened to the estimated 1.5 million people who fled their flooded and destroyed homes in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana?

The Katrina-spawned diaspora is arguably the largest in U.S. history. Federal statistics suggest that about 1 million evacuees from the hurricane-damaged areas have returned to their homes. That leaves a diaspora population of about half a million people.

Where did they go? What happened to them?

Surprisingly, there are few answers to these questions. Many Gulf Coast residents decamped to Baton Rouge, which is now Louisiana’s largest city. Others spread outward across the country, to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, even to Alaska. Most Katrina evacuees appear to have settled in such Southern metropolises as Dallas; Little Rock, Ark.; Atlanta; and Houston. Of the initial quarter of a million hurricane victims who went to Houston, an estimated 110,000 still live in the city, according to the most recent Gallup survey. Texas overall harbors 250,000 evacuees.

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Those who have settled in Houston and other cities are disproportionately from New Orleans and its immediate environs. The 2000 census put New Orleans’ population at 484,674, down from a high of 630,000 in 1960. Estimates as of June 2006 set the city’s population at well below 200,000.

It remains uncertain how many of the evacuees will never go home. Many factors will affect their decision, among them the phaseout of federal assistance in their places of refuge or parents’ wishes to keep their children in schools in their new locations. Most crucial will be individual and family assessments of where the best opportunities lie.

Many evacuees in Houston told me that New Orleans is still a powerful magnet for them. In 2000, according to the census, about three of four New Orleans residents were Louisiana natives; the Crescent City roots of many of these families go back generations.

“New Orleans is in my soul,” evacuee John Henry, a former journalism student at Loyola University in New Orleans, told me last month. “I dreaded leaving.... I am homesick every day.”

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Yet, like several evacuees I spoke to, Henry plans to stay in Houston because he believes the opportunities there for him and his family are better than in New Orleans. He doubts that a rebuilt New Orleans will have many places for working-class or even middle-class blacks like him.

He may be right. Most reconstruction plans for New Orleans re-imagine the city as a tourist center. One popular idea is to build a $716-million “Hyatt Jazz District” around the downtown area. By contrast, there has been less talk of reviving the Port of New Orleans, the former bulwark of the city’s blue-collar economy; recapturing corporate tenants, particularly the white-collar, job-rich oil industry; or rebuilding the industrial sector.

What seems to be happening is the boutiquing of New Orleans (think San Francisco), with its economy designed to service high-end clientele, tourists and a nomadic population of thrill-seeking young people. Lifestyle and culture would be its commodities.

This prospect may excite real-estate speculators, but it worries Sherby Guillory, a former Tulane University graduate student who counsels Katrina evacuees in Houston. “Seems that they all want to rebuild a shining city on the hill -- but without the people.”

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Many of those displaced people still suffer the aftereffects of Katrina. Not only homesick, they struggle to escape the poverty they brought with them. Household incomes of displaced families in Houston average $19,000 a year, half the per-capita income of a typical city resident. The fact that some from New Orleans’ criminal class have remained in diaspora cities hasn’t made things any easier for evacuees. In Houston, they are widely blamed for a recent upsurge in violent crime.

Yet headlines can be misleading. Old New Orleans is not being re-created in Space City. The southwest corner of Houston, home to many of the Katrina displaced, exhibits little evidence of the kind of destitution common in New Orleans. Mostly, Houstonians in that part of the city complain about raucous teenage crowds around clubs on weekends.

Nevertheless, Houstonians suffer from what one called “evacuee fatigue.” Residents are proud of their generosity and competence in accommodating the Katrina diaspora, says Rice University demographer Stephen Klineberg, but a majority, according to his most recent poll, believe that their city is “worse off” because of the migration.

Of course, the presence in a city of large groups of displaced people often upsets longtime residents. The great migration to New York in the late 19th century, driven largely by czarist pogroms, led a former superintendent of the census to question why the nation was scooping up “every stagnant pool of European population, representing the utterest failures of civilization, the worst defeats in the struggle of existence, the lowest degradation of human nature.”

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Yet, over time, diasporas often strengthen the places they settle, inspiring original settlers to strive for more than they otherwise would have. New Orleans, for instance, epitomized a stagnant society in which even educated people felt boxed in by corrupt politics and an economy increasingly dependent on tourism. Ambitious New Orleanians were leaving long before Katrina.

The cities in which Katrina victims are settling have their problems, of course, but they all boast diverse, highly cosmopolitan economies. Houston, Atlanta and Dallas rank in the top five of the best cities for African Americans to live, according to a recent survey by Black Enterprise magazine. In Houston, one in five businesses is owned by an African American, the magazine says.

The prospect of upward mobility in a new location may be the strongest reason for evacuees not to go home. When I asked a group of University of Houston graduate students in social work what is the biggest difference between New Orleans and Houston, they almost all used one word -- opportunity.

“This is a place where people go to get ahead,” said Crystal Walker, a native New Orleanian and former student at predominantly black Southern University at New Orleans. “You don’t have that cloud over you here. New Orleans will always be my first love, but there are better opportunities here for my kids.”

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Whether these opportunities can be realized will largely depend on how evacuees integrate into the Houston economy. About three-fifths of evacuees in Texas are jobless, according to the Gallup survey. This may be because they lack employable skills, or they have yet to make up their minds about returning home. Laziness, a trait that some Houstonians claim to see in New Orleanians, doesn’t seem to be a reason. About 8,500 people showed up last October at a government-sponsored job fair in Houston; 2,000 found work that day.

Breaking ties in Louisiana and setting down roots in a new home is the hardest thing for evacuees. But one sign that this is happening is that as many as 10 long-established New Orleans churches have moved to Houston. For 33-year-old New Orleans native John Taylor, the establishment of his church -- the New Home Ministry -- in Houston has solidified his plans to stay.

Taylor told me that he and his wife are buying a home and plan to open a day-care center in the next year. “For years, we considered moving to Houston. The church is the only thing that kept us in New Orleans,” he said. “I don’t want to go back -- our future is here.”


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