Hurricane Laura displacement doesn’t have to mean missing the 2020 Census

Census reps being sent to hotels to find Laura evacuees

By: - September 8, 2020 7:00 am

The counting for the 2020 ended Sept. 30, 2020. Census officials don’t expect to release population data until Sep. 30, 2021. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Hurricane Laura, which made an August 27 landfall in Cameron Parish, tore a path of destruction through a state with one of the nation’s lowest self-response rates to the census and landed when the U.S. Census Bureau had little more than a month left to complete its count.  That means that field representatives who’ve been deployed to interview people who haven’t responded will have to contend with a devastated and largely depopulated landscape.

Marilyn Stephens, assistant regional census manager in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Atlanta office said Friday that those census workers will still work to find people where they are.  Because the storm happened in the middle of a pandemic and state officials don’t want to shelter people in a manner that will help spread the new coronavirus, they have opted instead to house families in hotel rooms.  Stephens said her office has been in communication with Gov. John Bel Edwards about the hotels housing storm evacuees and sent their employees to those hotels to give those evacuees another shot at being counted.

“We are sending our customer response representatives to those hotels so that they can interview  the people right there,” Stephens said. “And also, people being told that they can still go online as well as use a toll-free number to complete their form as well. Our call centers are open from 7am to 2am everyday. So there’s a representative there waiting.”

Stephens said the Atlanta Region of the Census Bureau oversees Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi North Carolina and South Carolina, each one of which is vulnerable to a storm out of the Gulf or the Atlantic Ocean.  “So we understand what hurricane season means,” she said.  That said, the bureau is usually not still working to count people during the most active part of storm season.  “If we were not in a pandemic,” Stephens said, “we would have completed the field operation for this census by July 31.”

Two people interviewed by the Illuminator last week — one in Alexandria and another in Shreveport — said they were still living on their property even after Laura partially destroyed their homes.  One said she was sleeping on the porch. So there are still people who are still living among Laura’s ruins.  “In some neighborhoods where we can get through, we will have staff there,” Stephens said. The bureau is appreciative that “local officials are really talking to people and telling them that (they) need to be counted immediately.”

The 2020 Census is the first one in the nation’s history where residents have been given three ways to self respond, Stephens said.  Responding to the census by mail has long been the standard, but this is the first time the census has publicized the public’s ability to respond online and the first time it has provided a way for people to respond on the phone, she said.   

“It’s also the first census where we’re supporting 12 non-English languages online and by phone,” she said.

On a ranking of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, Louisiana comes in 45th for the total response rate to the 2020 Census.  Twenty percent or residents have neither self-responded nor been counted by a field representative.

Residents have until Sept. 30 to be counted.  An online questionnaire can be found at  English speakers can dial 844-330-2020.  Non-English speakers can find the number to call at this link



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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.