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 Wednesday, 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 5-week-old spill has not affected their sandy beaches.
The report found that the Gulf Coast population — in counties in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and 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 Sun Belt.
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.
William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution, 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.
Among other census findings:
• The Gulf Coast was home to six of the eight U.S. coastline counties with the fastest population growth. It was led by Collier County, Fla., located north of the Keys, which grew by 1,900 percent from 15,753 in 1960 to 315,258.
• Nearly half of the nation's coastline population in 2008 was in California (29 percent) or Florida (16 percent).