By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana's northern and rural parishes continued to lose population over the last decade, as people moved to cities and suburbs across the southern reaches of the state, according to detailed demographic figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Overall, Louisiana's population topped 4.6 million people, an anemic growth of only 2.7% from 2010 to 2020 that was well below the national average of 7.4% and behind nearly every other Southern state except Mississippi.
But within Louisiana, some areas saw large spikes in residents, particularly the New Orleans region, the suburban parishes surrounding Baton Rouge and southwestern Calcasieu Parish along the state's border with Texas.
Nineteen of the state's 64 parishes showed population growth since 2010, while 45 parishes lost residents, according to the census information. The parish with the largest percentage increase of new residents over the last decade was the New Orleans suburb of St. Bernard Parish, while Tensas Parish in the Mississippi Delta region saw the steepest percentage decline, losing 21% of its people.
State lawmakers will use the data released Thursday to redraw Louisiana's political maps for U.S. House, state legislative, state education board and other elected office seats, accounting for the population shifts.
The Legislature intends to call a special session in early 2022 for the redistricting work.
Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who chairs the Senate redistricting committee, said lawmakers will hold public hearings across Louisiana starting in mid-September to discuss the numbers and hear from local residents and officials about how they'd like to see districts drawn. The hearings in the state's major cities will run through the end of the year.
"In January, we'll take all of that feedback that we've gained from all around the state and start drafting maps" for a special session expected in February, Hewitt said.
With Louisiana continuing a decades-long trend of population decline in its northern parishes, lawmakers are certain to revisit a debate from 10 years ago: Whether to maintain two of the state's six U.S. House seats in north Louisiana or to consolidate to one northern-based district along Interstate 20. The congressional districts have dipped further and further to the south to maintain equal populations, and some lawmakers would like to rework that map.
"That will be one of the biggest debates," Hewitt said. "The north Louisiana folks clearly want two congressional districts as opposed to (one) district that follows I-20."
The census results show Louisiana's largest parish is East Baton Rouge with nearly 457,000 residents, followed by Jefferson, Orleans, St. Tammany, Lafayette, Caddo and Calcasieu parishes.
The New Orleans region saw a sizable rebound in its population after Hurricane Katrina displaced tens of thousands of people in 2005 and rebuilding stretched over years. Orleans Parish saw its population grow by nearly 12% to about 384,000 residents, while the suburbs of St. Tammany Parish and St. Bernard Parish added residents at rates of 13% and 22%.
Meanwhile, Calcasieu Parish in southwest Louisiana saw significant growth as its petrochemical corridor boomed across the decade. The census shows the parish increasing its population by more than 12% to reach nearly 217,000 residents - but the data likely doesn't account for the displacement of thousands by Hurricane Laura, which wrecked much of the parish in August 2020.
In Louisiana's capital region, East Baton Rouge Parish added nearly 4% in population growth. But its neighboring parishes of West Feliciana, Livingston and Ascension saw far more sizable jumps in resident numbers - despite widespread flooding in the region only five years ago. West Feliciana Parish's population grew by more than 14%, Livingston Parish by 11% and Ascension Parish by 18%, according to the census data.
The release of the redistricting data culled from the 2020 census arrived more than four months later than expected due to delays caused by the pandemic. The numbers cover geographies as small as neighborhoods and as large as states and offer details about the racial breakdowns and diversity of the people who live there.
Louisiana's population identified as nearly 56% white, more than 31% Black and nearly 7% Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2020 data. That's slightly less white compared to a decade earlier, when 60% of residents identified as white, 32% as Black and 4% as Hispanic or Latino.
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