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Katrina Comeback Vaults New Orleans to Fastest-Growing U.S. City

Thursday, 28 June 2012 06:49 AM

New Orleans, in danger seven years ago of being reduced to a “Sliver by the River,” grew faster than any other major U.S. city in the 15 months after the 2010 decennial headcount, the U.S. Census Bureau announced today.

Ravaged in 2005 by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the city grew 4.9 percent from April 2010 to July 2011, increasing its population to 360,740. In the year after the hurricanes, the city’s population fell to 223,388 from its pre-storm tally of 452,170, the Census Bureau estimated.

The magnitude of population loss after Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans’ protective levees means the city has needed to add relatively few people to rank among the fastest-growing places in the nation since 2007. It also has been aided by billions in federal reconstruction dollars and a healthy tourism industry.

“You’re getting a lot of people coming home,” Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University historian and the author of “The Great Deluge,” about the disaster, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a beehive of activity.”

The city, with its classic Creole cuisine and boisterous French Quarter, long has been a magnet for vacationers and conventions. A study released in March by the University of New Orleans found that 8.75 million tourists spent $5.5 billion last year, a record.

When the iconic Commander’s Palace reopened 13 months after the storms, it received a steady stream of customers wanting to have their last meal at the restaurant before moving, said co- owner Ti Adelaide Martin. These days, it’s serving more people having their first meal.

“It was really, really depressing,” Martin said. “Now, it’s just the opposite.”

New Orleans’ growth rate outpaced six Texas locations among the fastest-rising major U.S. cities: Round Rock, Austin and the Dallas suburbs of Plano, McKinney, Frisco and Denton. Denver, Cary, N. C., and Raleigh rounded out the top 10. New York added the most people, increasing its population by 69,777 for a total estimated population of 8,244,910.

New Orleans, known as the Big Easy, has had its share of problems during the last year. The city’s highest-in-the-nation murder rate spurred Mayor Mitch Landrieu to ask the federal government last month for more help to fight crime. Advance Publications Inc., the owner of the city’s newspaper, laid off almost half the newsroom at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and announced plans to convert to a primarily digital product.

Even so, the local economy is doing well, said Allison Plyer, chief demographer at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a nonprofit research firm that collects social, economic and demographic figures. The unemployment rate in Orleans Parish was 7.2 percent in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a full point below the national average.

“The population growth is strongly related to job growth,” Plyer said in a telephone interview. “The New Orleans area really weathered the recession very well.”

Much of the job growth has come from public works. More than 1,800 people died in August 2005 when the city’s poorly designed, 350-mile system of levees failed as Katrina roared ashore. Since then, the federal government has spent almost $20 billion on contracts, with much of that going to rebuild the dikes.

Construction and engineering firms made up five of the 10 contractors receiving the most federal dollars during the 2011 budget year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The largest amount last year was a $675 million contract awarded to CBY Design Builders. The company, a joint venture of Brasfield & Gorrie, CDM Constructors and W.G. Yates and Sons Construction, won the bidding to install pumps in the city’s canal system.

The contract was scrapped after an investigation by the Government Accountability Office found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent less than five minutes discussing whether the company’s design would hold up to a major storm. A federal court last month cleared the way for another round of bidding on the project. The Corps now estimates that temporary pumps — designed to protect the city beyond the high ground known as the Sliver by the River — won’t be replaced before the middle of 2016.

Work continues elsewhere. The Tampa-based construction firm of Clark/McCarthy Healthcare Partners received $410.9 million during the 2011 budget year to begin work on the headquarters for a new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health center in the historic Pan-American Life Insurance building northwest of downtown. The new center, with a $995 million price tag, is expected to open in 2014.

“It’s now a place where there are a lot of middle-class jobs,” Brinkley said. “The reconstruction projects are on a scale of the Saint Lawrence Seaway or Hoover Dam. The question is, when will the money run out?”

For now, the local economy has been boosted by tourism efforts, including extra money from London-based BP, which contributed $3.8 million for marketing funds to cities affected by the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Tourism also has benefited from a number of New Orleans restaurants and hotels that are attracting visitors and residents.

“If you’d asked me, even two-and-a-half-years ago, if we’d reach pre-Katrina levels before I became an old lady, I’d have told you that it would never happen,” said Martin, the co-owner of Commander’s Palace. “But it’s been a booming two years, and we’re back there now.

“It’s exhilarating.”

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Thursday, 28 June 2012 06:49 AM
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