02/15/2011 04:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What the New Census Data Can, and Can't, Tell Us About New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS -- The 2010 census figures about New Orleans made news (here, here, and here, for example), but the stories all came out at the height of the uprising in Egyptian cities, so you may have missed them. But, since they were all written from within the conventional narrative of the 2005 flooding (big storm, natural disaster), you certainly missed the more disturbing implications of those numbers.

There are 118,000 fewer African-Americans in New Orleans than in the previous census. We know that approximately 100,000 of them were evacuated in the wake of the catastrophic flooding of the city. "Evacuated" means they were loaded onto planes, trains and buses, essentially given a one-way ticket to a destination unknown to them until they arrived.

Now for what we don't know. According to Allison Plyer, of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which makes it its business to collect all available statistical information on the area, we don't know where those 100,000 people are now, whether (as Barbara Bush famously predicted) they're happier in their new environs or whether they ache to come home. No public or private entity has thought it important to track those folks who were so suddenly uprooted. We have better information about the movie preferences of minor-league ballplayers than about these survivors of a major catastrophe.

Now to the implications. The flooding of New Orleans was "the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl", according to the co-leader of one of the two major forensic engineering investigations into the disaster (Google ILIT report from UC Berkeley, as well as the Team Louisiana report from LSU). Culpability for the flooding rests not with Mother Nature -- 20% of New Orleans flooded during the city's most serious previous brush with a major storm, 80% flooded in 2005 -- but with the US Army Corps of Engineers, according to those two reports, and to the decision of a US Federal judge in the only lawsuit stemming from the flooding to go to trial. The reports blame four and a half decades of design and construction mistakes and misjudgments. The Federal judge blames conduct rising to the level of "criminal negligence". As a result, 20% of the population of a major American city has gone...we don't know where.

And recent information available to that same part of our government indicates that Sacramento, California, may well be next.

And the entire official population of Washington, D.C., persists in its silence, and inaction, on this subject.

ADDENDUM: Some more things we do know. According to a couple of sources, housing agencies in New Orleans are, or have been, receiving a large number of requests for assistance in returning to the city. Post-flood, rents in New Orleans have risen by a third, while most public housing was demolished. After a long wrangle, federal government assistance, with many complications, was made available to compensate homeowners, but very little was done to compensate landlords. Hence, far more owner-occupied housing has been restored than rental housing.