The shrinking of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has hardly been a secret, but now the evidence is there for all to see. According to newly released data from last year's National Census, it lost a staggering 29 per cent of its population between 2000 and 2010, more than anyone has hitherto been willing to admit.
While some may contest their accuracy, the numbers are the most reliable snapshot of what has happened in New Orleans since the great storm of 2005. Not only is it smaller by almost a third – for the first time dropping out of the top 50 US cities – but it is also whiter, more affluent and a bit older.
There is a lot at stake for the city besides self-image, not least in terms of subsidies New Orleans will receive from the federal government in future. That's why until this week, it itself had touted interim estimates that now turn out to have been inflated. The census, taken on 1 April last year, gives an official headcount of 343,829 people compared with 484,674 10 years earlier.
"It makes me sad," said Robert Tannen, a sculptor and urban activist, who hardly needed the government to tell him what he can already see through the tall windows of his grand but fraying home on Esplanade Avenue. More than five years after the storm, the city known as "the Big Easy" is still heartbreakingly empty.
About a 10-minute walk from the French Quarter, where the tourism industry has handily rebounded, Mr Tannen lives in an area that historically was mostly black. "This is no surprise to me, because I can feel it every day," he says. "There are fewer houses that are occupied around us. Just on my street, you see fewer people walking at all times of day or night. There is just less visible population around us."
That the numbers also show a tilt towards a whiter and less poor city is no great shock, but reflects the reality that it was the poorest residents who were forced to flee and who have faced the greatest hurdles trying to get back. While 67 per cent of the population was black in 2000, only 60 per cent is now. The city is also home today to 44 per cent fewer children.
As demographers pored over the numbers yesterday, another statistic was quick to leap out. St Bernard Parish, down the Mississippi river from the city centre, has haemorrhaged almost half of its residents. The parish president, Craig Taffaro, calls the data "inconceivable" and is among those questioning their accuracy.
The Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, by contrast, is straining to downplay the significance of the census results. "Our progress has always been much bigger than a population number," he insisted. "Over five years after Hurricane Katrina, our story is one of redemption and resurrection. We are not rebuilding the city we were, but creating the city we want to become, brick by brick and block by block."
Indeed, not everyone thinks that the diminished population numbers are altogether bad. While the city was more populous before Katrina, which initially displaced about 200,000 residents whose homes were ruined and killed at least 1,330 others, it was also a place renowned for high poverty and crime. Timolynn Sams, director of the Neighbourhood Partnership Network, argues that her city has risen from its knees and is already using the shock of Katrina to remake itself into something more worthy.
"We as residents have found our own inner voice and have collectively decided that we are going to stay engaged, involved and informed to transform this city," she said. "It will stand as a model of how a community can overcome obstacles and economic disparities and all the different social ills we had. We have a strong brains trust here now."
Mr Tannen is the first to note that post-Katrina, New Orleans has attracted an influx of entrepreneurs and artists who have found creative fertility in the ruins of tragedy. He and his wife. Jeanne Nathan, have a lodger these days, a young documentary film maker, Kristian Hansen, who moved from California. These newcomers are welcome "but it's a small number compared to what we have lost," he says.