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New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina

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At the time of this writing, the newspapers in my hometown of Baton Rouge, are full of Katrina anniversary stories.

It’s been five years since the Category 4 hurricane struck the Gulf Coast and upended our neighboring city of New Orleans along with coastal towns in Mississippi and Florida.

We all know that thousands of lives were lost, and billions of dollars in commercial and residential damages were incurred. And, today, when I visit New Orleans -- which is pretty frequent, considering it’s a one-hour interstate drive away from my house -- I still see telltale signs of a massive storm that put an already sinking city under water.

But for all the homes still in shambles and empty windows of stores that never reopened after Katrina, there is evidence of progress. Sunday’s Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge and Times-Picayune in New Orleans showed “before and after” photos that illustrated some of the strides made since late August 2005. A “before” photo of a shredded Super Dome roof was accompanied by an “after” image of the now-renovated facility that is home to the newly minted world-champion New Orleans Saints football team.

Photos of flooded streets and floating cars were supplanted by images of resurfaced roads and new street and building signage. A shuttered and boarded-up mall is depicted now open for business. And 2005 pictures of uprooted trees and deserted neighborhoods are shown beside current photos of green lawns and townspeople enjoying daily life in New Orleans.

The Nielsen Co. has just released a white paper in which business and government leaders assess the value of up-to-date demographic data. “When Disaster Strikes” discusses the extraordinary, and alarming, absence of data after Katrina -- when all conventional sources of information were swept away, and analysts and demographers were faced with innovating methods for gathering and validating population statistics. According to Nielsen’s research, the city of New Orleans relied on collaboration among public and private entities to mine enough intelligence to allow companies to “reopen stores, manage brands, react to shifting consumer tastes, optimize their store mix and grow their product portfolios,” the report said.

Imagine a data void so complete that you have no idea how many people reside in a particular trade area, you don’t know who they are, or what their resources are, nor what their traffic patterns are.

Under normal circumstances, Nielsen has used public and private sources such as postal delivery counts and its own database of commercial and residential addresses to create trade-area statistics. But when Katrina made that impossible, Nielsen chief demographer Ken Hodges combined Red Cross data on housing damage and evacuees and combined it with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) damage assessment maps to get an idea of where residents were. Hodges and his team gleaned data on 1.3 million flood insurance claims as another source.

“It was real seat-of-the-pants demography,” said Hodges.

The information generated by Nielsen allowed businesses to evaluate when, where -- and if -- they would return. Mall owner General Growth Properties, whose Oakwood Center was devastated by Katrina, needed demographic data on what had happed to the 265,000 people in the mall’s trade area. Nielsen’s population projections, indicating a 4% increase by 2010, convinced GGP to rebuild and reopen Oakwood Center in 2007.

Today’s statistics show New Orleans with a 76% populace recovery since Katrina, although the current inhabitants are older, less diverse and wealthier than before. And as more businesses look to fill the retail and food deserts that still exist in the city today, they will likely rely on demographers like Nielsen to guide them.

For the full report, visit Nielsen.com.

© 2014