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Rising population along Gulf Coast might not last

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 02:34 AM
WASHINGTON -

The population of counties situated along the Gulf of Mexico is rising sharply but demographers warn that the trend won't last because of a constant threat of hurricanes and uncertainty over the current oil spill.

An analysis by the Census Bureau, released today, details the twist-and-turn growth of U.S. coastline areas which contain roughly 87 million, or 29 percent, of the nation's population.

It also underscores the stakes for a fast-growing Gulf region in the wake of the massive oil spill. Louisiana fears its natural wildlife and multimillion dollar seafood industry could be ruined for years, while Florida tourism officials are launching ads to make clear the five-week-old spill has not affected their sandy beaches.

The report found that the Gulf Coast population - which includes counties in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and western Florida - jumped by 150 percent since 1960 to about 14 million, as people shied away from coastal living in more crowded areas along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

That Gulf Coast growth surpassed all other U.S. regions, and is more than double the rate of increase for the nation as a whole. Noncoastal areas also lagged, rising 64 percent to nearly 220 million despite the growing popularity of inland cities located in the Sunbelt.

At the same time, the Gulf Coast remains the smallest in overall population compared to coastline counties along the Atlantic (41 million) and Pacific (32 million). One reason may be the higher risk of natural disasters: the Gulf Coast was home to six of the 11 coastline counties most frequently hit by hurricanes.

New Orleans, for example, remains at roughly 65 percent the population level it had before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, despite years of rebuilding.

"The last two decades showed that the Gulf Coast has become a more affordable alternative for those priced out of the Atlantic and Pacific coastal magnets," said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution. "But the recent spate of hurricanes and now the oil spill could dampen their attraction. This should bring even greater gains for noncoastal Sunbelt destinations once the housing market revives."

Frey predicted a longer-term shift toward inland cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta, Orlando, and Raleigh, due partly to their broader-based economies. Between 2000 and 2008, noncoastline counties grew by 9 percent, compared to a 7 percent gain for coastline areas.

The census report tracks data back to 1960, when people first began to flock to coastal locations along the Atlantic and Pacific.

As those areas became more congested and housing prices rose, young adults and families in the 1990s began looking elsewhere - kicking off a more sweeping migration to places along the Gulf Coast, as well as inland suburbs near the coast.

The report does not make predictions about future growth, but demographers say the recession has substantially reduced demand for vacation homes along the coast. Baby boomers are staying put in suburbs as they opt to continue working rather than retire to coastal locations, and uncertainty now lingers over the long-term economic impact of the oil spill.

"The Exxon Valdez oil spill had a big impact on the tourism and fishing industries in Alaska, and I'd expect to see a similar impact on the Gulf states," said Mark Mather, associate vice president at the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit group. "Cleanup costs also have skyrocketed because of the growing concentration of people and wealth in vulnerable areas."

The percentage of Florida residents living in coastal counties has actually been dropping for decades, as the state's surging population has spurred development in the interior peninsula. The concentration of Florida's population in coastal counties peaked in 1970, when 79.4 percent of the state lived along the water's edge, according to census figures. That concentration has been dropping ever since, with the number dropping to 75.7 percent in 2008.

That's not to say Florida's coastal counties aren't growing, too. In 2008, coastal residents in California and Florida accounted for 44.7 percent of the country's coastline population, with Florida accounting for 16 percent of that total. That number also reflects decades of surging population. In 1960, by way of comparison, coastal residents in Florida accounted for 8. percent of the nation's coastal population.

Several Florida counties ranked among the fastest-growing coastal areas in the country, led by Miami-Dade, No. 5 in terms of raw numbers, where the population jumped by 1.4 million people between 1960 and 2008. Two other Florida counties ranked in the Top 10 for growth since 1960 - No. 6 Broward County and No. 8 Palm Beach County. Hillsborough County was No. 11 for raw population growth, going from 397,788 people in 1960 to 1,180,784 in 2008, according to census numbers. Pinellas County came in at No. 17 on that list, going from 374,665 in 1960 to 910,260 in 2008, though the county's population has actually been dropping in recent years.

When looking at per-capita population growth among coastal areas since 1960, several Florida counties made the Top 10, headed by Collier County, which grew from 15,753 in 1960 to 315,258 people in 2008 - a surge of more than 1,900 percent. Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties also were among the leaders in per-capita gains, with Hernando and Citrus counties both growing by more than 1,400 percent and Pasco growing by more than 1,100 percent since 1960.

Only Pinellas ranked among the most densely populated coastal counties in the nation, with an average density of 3,324 people per square mile in 2008, according to the census figures. By comparison, Manhattan has 71,764 people per square mile and San Francisco 17,260.

Among other census findings:

• Dense coastal counties in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts had declining population shares from 1960 to 2008, as people moved from crowded areas along the water to surrounding suburbs or other U.S. regions.

• Los Angeles and Houston had the largest numerical increases in population among coastal areas, adding 3.8 million and 2.7 million residents, respectively, since 1960. That's due largely to immigration and high rates of births in their cities.

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