NEW ORLEANS – Hurricanes Katrina and Rita drove an estimated 450,000 people from their communities along the Gulf Coast last year, but in the storms' wake Hispanics moved in — perhaps 100,000 or more.
New government estimates show a region decimated by population losses four months after the storms. Orleans Parish in Louisiana lost 279,000 people, and nearby St. Bernard Parish lost 61,000, or 95 percent of its residents.
Hispanics, however, swept in by the tens of thousands, according to estimates released Tuesday by the Census Bureau.
Jose Rios, a Mexican immigrant from Eagle Point, Texas, runs a food trailer near a spot in New Orleans where dozens of immigrants wait each morning to be picked up for a day's work.
"Every time you look up on the roofs, the guys doing the hard work, they're all Hispanic," said Rios, 36.
Guillermo Meneses, spokesman for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said, "Where you see work and the opportunity for work, you will see Latinos."
The Census Bureau released population estimates Tuesday for 117 counties and parishes along the Gulf Coast for the period before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and for Jan. 1, about four months afterward. The counties — all in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — had been designated for hurricane assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The data showed 40 counties and parishes losing a total of 450,000 residents. The other 77 counties and parishes — most of them farther inland — added 200,000 people.
Census officials cautioned that there weren't many people to count in some areas four months after the storm, creating larger margins of error than in most census studies. Also, the region has changed since January, with more residents returning to some areas.
Steve Murdock, a demographer at the University of Texas San Antonio, said, "It's a mistake to think that these numbers provide of a comprehensive look at the effects of Katrina. They provide a certain snapshot, but they are clearly only a partial picture."
Among the weaknesses in the data: Only people living in households were counted, meaning that hurricane refugees living in hotels and shelters were excluded. That skewed some population counts.
For example, the estimates showed that Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, grew by 93,000 people. The city and county have consistently placed the population influx at 150,000 people.
"We know it says 90,000, but the number of people in the housing program alone exceeded that," said Frank Michel, spokesman for Houston Mayor Bill White.
Also, while the data clearly shows an increase in Hispanics and immigrants in the hurricane region as a whole, it is less clear where those increases happened because the changes were so small in some areas.
Jorge delPinal, an assistant division chief for the Census Bureau, said much of the increase appeared to be in coastal Texas, though there were also increases in Mississippi and Alabama.
In New Orleans, demographer Greg Rigamer estimated the city has rebounded to at least 221,000 people since January, or about half the size it was before the storms.
"The analogy I like to use is that it's like a stock price in the middle of the day. It's a very dynamic and fluid situation. People are continuing to return and the availability of housing and utilities has a bearing on that," said Rigamer, head of GCR & Associates Inc., a New Orleans consulting firm
Still, census officials said, the data offers the best look yet at who was driven from their homes, who was left behind, and who moved to the region in the months following the storms. Across the region, the data showed large jumps in the percentage of people using food stamps. In New Orleans, it showed average incomes increasing by 16 percent, in part because many of the poorest residents were forced to leave.
The black population in the New Orleans metropolitan area, which includes several largely white suburbs, dropped from 37 percent to 22 percent, while the white population grew from 60 percent to 73 percent of the total that remained.
The Census Bureau was unable to provide race or socio-economic data limited to the city of New Orleans because officials were unable to survey enough people there to generate reliable data.
Three Gulf Coast counties in Mississippi — Hancock, Harrison and Jackson — lost an estimated 50,000 people, or about 14 percent of their populations.
The share of white residents in those counties shrunk from 80 percent to 72 percent, while the share of black people grew from 17 percent to 28 percent.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said he expects most to return.
"I don't have any concern about any kind of flight," Barbour said. "I think virtually everybody on the coast, or well over 90 percent of people who lived on the coast before the storm, intend to be living and will be living on the coast in the future."