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Hurricane Population Declines Could Skew 2020 Census

Valerie Crowder

For communities still recovering from Hurricane Michael, the 2020 census comes at a bad time. Bay County officials worry they could lose millions of dollars and are trying to make sure everyone gets counted. 


“It’s kind of a 10-year punishment,” said Bay County Commissioner Robert Carroll. 


Local leaders estimate thousands of people left after the storm, and they’re not sure how many have moved to the county since then. “We won’t have them all back here by April,” Carroll said. “But hopefully, in the next several years, we’ll have everybody back.” 


Hurricane-related declines that remain on April 1 - the official census count day - could prevent the hardest-hit towns from receiving their fair share of funding when their populations have been restored. 


To avoid an undercount of current residents, local officials are urging everyone who lives in the county to respond to census notices when they begin receiving them in the mail in mid-March. “Every single person, please, fill out the form. Go online. Make the telephone call. Put it back in the mail,” Carroll said.


In mid-2018, Bay County’s population had grown by almost 10% - to 185,287 people - since the last census. Within six months after the hurricane, the population had fallen by that same amount to an estimated 167,283 residents, according to data from the University of Florida


“We’ve got so many of our personnel from Tyndall who are not here, ” Carroll said. “At the same time, we’ve got Eastern Shipbuilding who’s ramped up starting all their coast guard cutters, so they’ve brought in more workers. We’ve got roofers. We’ve got construction workers.”


Local governments, nonprofit organizations and private investors use the decennial census data to make decisions that affect community planning and the local economy, Carroll said.   


“Businesses use the census data to decide locations for their new facilities, offices, stores and most importantly, creating more jobs,” he said. “Residents can use the census data to support community initiatives involving legislation, quality of life and advocacy.” 


In 2017, federal agencies used census data to distribute $1.5 trillion to state and local governments for more than 300 programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, grants for low-income schools, affordable housing vouchers, free and reduced school lunch, assistance for rural communities and highway planning, according to an analysis from George Washington University


Florida received almost $87 billion of that funding. That same year, Floridians paid almost $200 billion in federal taxes, data from the Internal Revenue Service shows.


“This federal funding is not a handout,” said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan taxpayer advocacy group. “It’s trying to get our legal, lawful share.”  


Calabro is holding press conferences with local leaders in communities across the state to encourage a complete count.


For communities still rebuilding after Hurricane Michael, it's especially important that all residents are counted, Calabro said.


“Bay County can simply not afford an undercount,” he said.  “There’s probably more at stake for this community than almost any other.”


In Panama City, an estimated 15% of residents were displaced, based on the number of utility accounts that were disconnected after the storm, said Panama City Manager Mark McQueen. 


He and other local leaders have spoken with U.S. Census officials in Washington D.C. about the possibility of holding a special census several years from now, McQueen said. In 2022, local governments could start applying for a recount, but they would have to pay for it.


“As families do begin returning to this community - and they are returning - we must be prepared to welcome them and provide every service that they need and indeed deserve,” McQueen said. 


For now, he and other local leaders are focused on urging a full count in the upcoming census to avoid a “decade’s worth of headaches,” McQueen said.


“We all know that Hurricane Michael dramatically changed our lives,” he said. “And that four-hour named storm should not define us and penalize us for the next ten years.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.