WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — The population of counties situated along the Gulf of Mexico is rising sharply but demographers warn that the trend won't last because of a constant threat of hurricanes and uncertainty over the current oil spill.
An analysis by the Census Bureau, released Wednesday, details the twist-and-turn growth of U.S. coastline areas which contain roughly 87 million, or 29 percent, of the nation's population.
It also underscores the stakes for a fast-growing Gulf region in the wake of the massive oil spill. Louisiana fears its natural wildlife and multimillion dollar seafood industry could be ruined for years, while Florida tourism officials are launching ads to make clear the five-week-old spill has not affected their sandy beaches.
The report found that the Gulf Coast population — which includes counties in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and western Florida — jumped by 150 percent since 1960 to about 14 million, as people shied away from coastal living in more crowded areas along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
That Gulf Coast growth surpassed all other U.S. regions, and is more than double the rate of increase for the nation as a whole. Noncoastal areas also lagged, rising 64 percent to nearly 220 million despite the growing popularity of inland cities located in the Sunbelt.
At the same time, the Gulf Coast remains the smallest in overall population compared to coastline counties along the Atlantic (41 million) and Pacific (32 million). One reason may be the higher risk of natural disasters: the Gulf Coast was home to six of the 11 coastline counties most frequently hit by hurricanes.
New Orleans, for example, remains at roughly 65 percent the population level it had before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, despite years of rebuilding.
"The last two decades showed that the Gulf Coast has become a more affordable alternative for those priced out of the Atlantic and Pacific coastal magnets," said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution. "But the recent spate of hurricanes and now the oil spill could dampen their attraction. This should bring even greater gains for noncoastal Sunbelt destinations once the housing market revives."
Frey predicted a longer-term shift toward inland cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta, Orlando, and Raleigh, due partly to their broader-based economies. Between 2000 and 2008, noncoastline counties grew by 9 percent, compared to a 7 percent gain for coastline areas.
The census report tracks data back to 1960, when people first began to flock to coastal locations along the Atlantic and Pacific.
As those areas became more congested and housing prices rose, young adults and families in the 1990s began looking elsewhere — kicking off a more sweeping migration to places along the Gulf Coast, as well as inland suburbs near the coast.
The report does not make predictions about future growth, but demographers say the recession has substantially reduced demand for vacation homes along the coast. Baby boomers are staying put in suburbs as they opt to continue working rather than retire to coastal locations, and uncertainty now lingers over the long-term economic impact of the oil spill.
"The Exxon Valdez oil spill had a big impact on the tourism and fishing industries in Alaska, and I'd expect to see a similar impact on the Gulf states," said Mark Mather, associate vice president at the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit group. "Cleanup costs also have skyrocketed because of the growing concentration of people and wealth in vulnerable areas."
Among other census findings:
—The Gulf Coast was home to six of the eight U.S. coastline counties with the fastest population growth. It was led by Collier County, Fla., located north of the Florida Keys, which grew by 1,900 percent from 15,753 in 1960 to 315,258.
—Dense coastal counties in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts had declining population shares from 1960 to 2008, as people moved from crowded areas along the water to surrounding suburbs or other U.S. regions.
—Los Angeles and Houston had the largest numerical increases in population among coastal areas, adding 3.8 million and 2.7 million residents, respectively, since 1960. That's due largely to immigration and high rates of births in their cities.
—Nearly half of the nation's coastline population in 2008 was in California (29 percent) or Florida (16 percent).