Census gives opposite advice to tornado-damaged Dayton, flood-ravaged Houston

Tim Henderson, Stateline.org on

Published in Political News

DAYTON, Ohio -- Josh Hollon was shocked when he stepped onto his porch on Memorial Day last year and saw three churning triangles of cloud closing in on his house in suburban Northridge, Ohio.

"I had just turned off the news and said, 'Nothing ever happens here. Forget it,'" Hollon said. "I saw those clouds and I went to my wife and said, 'Hey, we've gotta get into the basement. Now!'"

A series of tornadoes surprised the Dayton area and blew a hole right through the Hollon home, filling the backyard with wreckage. They were lucky to have insurance to make basic repairs.

Many of their neighbors are still fighting to make their homes habitable again, along an 18-mile swath of destruction that left thousands of crumpled houses and apartment buildings across the Dayton area. Hollon can see one or two vacant houses on every block, some torn down completely.

Residents displaced by recent natural disasters in Dayton and elsewhere around the country raise tricky questions for this year's census count. They're getting conflicting advice from the U.S. Census Bureau on whether to count themselves at a temporary address or at the damaged homes where they plan to return.

In the Dayton area, partnership specialists working for the Census Bureau's Philadelphia region advised local officials in an October presentation that people should be counted in their damaged homes even if living elsewhere while waiting for repairs. So local communities are reaching out with that advice and opening facilities for displaced residents to fill out forms.


"People temporarily displaced by natural disasters are to be counted at their usual residence to which they intend to return," according to the presentation.

In flood-ravaged Houston, the advice was different: People need to be counted wherever they currently live. That advice also came from a partnership specialist working for the Census Bureau, said Larry Nierth, a geographic information officer for the city's planning department.

"We are taking this to mean that if you are displaced by a hurricane or flood and Census Day comes, you are to be counted where you are living on Census Day (April 1)," Nierth said.

Much depends on the decisions. As natural disasters multiply across the country, due in part to climate change, city and state leaders worry their areas could lose more of the funding they desperately need to continue the cleanup if displaced residents aren't counted.


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