Count us right

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the 2010 census for New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana.

The population count will determine whether our state keeps the same number of congressional seats and how much money it gets from federal programs for the next decade.

These are important factors for all states. But they are vital for Louisiana, which is recovering from two hurricanes and catastrophic flooding.

To that end, the Census Bureau must ensure it gets our numbers right.

Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches that followed displaced thousands of Louisianans, many of whom have not yet returned. Bureau officials said they will count as state residents people who return before April 1, 2010. That’s traditional Census Bureau policy, which counts people where they are residing at the time of the census.

But the bureau must make an extra effort to accurately count populations that have increased in our region since the storm and that the census has traditionally undercounted. Those include thousands of Hispanic workers and the homeless. Bureau officials promise to add more bilingual staff in our area, and that’s important.

The bureau also should consider complaints from Mayor Ray Nagin and other city officials that it lowballed its mid-2007 estimate of the city’s population. The bureau’s 240,000 estimate is tens of thousands below what other researchers found.

In particular, the agency seems to be underestimating households shared by two or three families waiting to complete their home repairs. Because of Road Home delays and contractor demand, many families may still be in that situation two years from now.

And if the bureau won’t count as Louisianians residents who remain displaced by April 2010, it needs to be ready to adjust our state’s figures more regularly during the next decade.

Finally, it’s encouraging that bureau officials seem to recognize that the failures of the federal levees during Katrina and the disastrous response immediately after the storm left a profound distrust of government in our region. Census officials talk about enlisting community groups to help ensure a high level of participation in the census, and residents should stand up and be counted.

But the best the agency can do to help restore our trust on government is to get ready to count us in an accurate and timely way.

– The Times-Picayune