Mail show thousands returned to New Orleans area in last 3 months

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - About 13,000 households in the New Orleans area have stopped having mail forwarded elsewhere since Jan. 1, figures from the U.S. Postal Service show.

Currently about 29% of the metro region's 670,515 pre-Hurricane Katrina postal customers continue to have forwarding orders on mail delivery, down from 31% on Dec. 31, according to the recently released postal service data.

The data indicated that those living in ZIP codes beginning with 701, which include many parts of the east bank of New Orleans that had minor or no flooding, are returning at the fastest rate, with an additional 8,000 households getting mail in those neighborhoods since the beginning of 2006.

"These data point up an important U-turn from earlier trends," said William Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan who has been following post-Katrina population patterns. "They are encouraging toward the view that people want to come back."

However, Elliott Stonecipher, a demographer and political scientist in Shreveport, said the postal service figures also run counter to some of the more upbeat forecasts. Even as former residents continue to stream back to the city, a smaller group of people who have already returned are thinking about leaving because of the uncertain economic future of the area, he said.

"It may well be that we set expectations too high at 180,000 to 210,000 [people] over the next year or so," Stonecipher said. "Erring on the side of the never-set-expectations-too-high side of things, it seems prudent to me to suggest 180,000 in the next year or so to allow for continuing return of the diaspora, minus possibly 25,000 who may, instead, decide things are just not coming together well enough to stay."

The return has slowed among those who took refuge in Houston after the storm. The postal service figures show about 36,000 former New Orleans customers still having mail forwarded to Houston, down only marginally from 37,000 at the end of 2005.

The number of New Orleans residents having mail forwarded to places closer to the city has dropped much more. In Baton Rouge, it fell 13% to 22,554.

"If you look at it in percentage terms, people are moving back to Orleans Parish more from the nearby area than from Texas and other states," said John Logan, a Brown University demographer who has published several studies on Katrina evacuees. "That may have implications about the future, that people who are farther away are not coming back as quickly. Whether they will come back in the long term is harder to say."

Every ZIP code in the New Orleans area has recorded a recent increase in people returning.

"The next couple of months will also be important in gauging return," said demographer Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution, who has been following the Katrina diaspora. "The end of school, the beginning of hurricane season and potentially less hectic summer months means that many people might attempt to return and/or also work on making their homes more habitable."

Whether or not major storms pound New Orleans this summer also is likely to affect the trend.

"Anecdotally, I've heard that many people and businesses are waiting to see what happens this year before they make more decisions," she said.