Hurricane Katrina may have emptied whole sections of New Orleans, but it hasn't set in motion the great national diaspora that was widely foreseen. Instead, the vast majority of displaced households are staying close to their former homes, postal records show.
A Los Angeles Times analysis of post-hurricane address changes also highlights the region's sharp distinctions in class and race. Poor blacks from the city were more likely to land farther away in places much different from home. In many cases, evacuees simply stayed wherever government-chartered buses or planes stopped.
Evacuees from nearby suburbs, mostly middle-class whites, tended to find housing closer by in areas similar to their neighborhoods, which minimized the disruption to their lives and left them in a better position to return as soon as circumstances allow. Despite the early alarm over a huge migration that would irreversibly scatter the city's population across the 50 states, only a small percentage has landed more than a day's drive - about 300 miles - from New Orleans. Almost 60 percent found new housing without leaving the storm-damaged area.
These patterns emerged from a Times analysis of 355,000 address changes through mid-October, representing about 25 percent of the 1.5 million Gulf Coast region households no longer receiving postal delivery. Such findings provide only a snapshot of migration patterns. Migration will be in flux for a long time, possibly years, as thousands continue to lead unsettled and unstable lives in hotel rooms, trailers and other temporary housing.
"We should look at this situation as a kind of motion picture, and this gives us a glimpse of one scene," said Bill Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan. "I would bet that six weeks from now, two months from now, two years from now these numbers will be dramatically different," said Frey, author of America by the Numbers: A Field Guide to the U.S. Population. Address changes that have poured in since October, however, followed the same migration pattern, the U.S. Postal Service said. Caveats aside, Frey and other researchers said there is evidence - primarily anecdotal - corroborating the Times' finding that poor blacks ended up farther away in wealthier, more rural areas that are predominantly white.
The move to more prosperous cities could amount to a second chance for many evacuees, and could change New Orleans forever.
James Elliott, a sociology professor at Tulane University, said New Orleans, more so than any other large American city, is a place of concentrated poverty, where schools and social agencies perform poorly, and where a large number of residents seem stuck in a cycle of poverty that goes back generations.
"Will moving to a new place help some people? The answer is probably," Elliott said, adding that much will depend on how accommodating their new hometowns will turn out to be. The greater distance from home and their lack of financial and social resources will make it more difficult for the poor to return, whereas middle-class residents who want to go back home are more likely to be able to afford it.
What this could portend for the re-building of New Orleans is a city with radically different demographics.
"It points to a New Orleans that could become much more white and middle-class," said Laura Ann Sanchez, a researcher at the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. Sanchez lived and taught in New Orleans for six years until 2000.
"The truly astonishing melting pot of race and culture that made New Orleans such a gem could be gone forever," Sanchez said.
About 65 percent of the changes-of-address were turned in by evacuees from the New Orleans area. Of that group, most came from densely populated Orleans Parish, one of the poorest areas in the nation, with a population about two-thirds black. These evacuees settled in areas where the populations on average were two-thirds white.
Nearly 15 percent scattered to such distant cities as Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Boston.
By contrast, the displaced population of New Orleans' suburban counties, which were about two-thirds white, evacuated to areas similar in racial demographics. The suburban group largely settled nearby, with 10 percent staying in the same ZIP area and more than 90 percent relocating within the region. In hurricane-damaged areas beyond New Orleans and its suburbs, the tendency to stay close was even stronger, with nearly half of all address changes occurring within the same ZIP area.
Overall, more than 80 percent of all evacuees remained in the southern states nearest the gulf region, with the top destinations being suburban New Orleans, followed by Houston, Baton Rouge, La., Dallas and Atlanta. The postal service information, tracking movements between regions that share the first three digits of a ZIP code, roughly corroborates Federal Emergency Management Agency statistics on people who have applied for aid.