Tornadoes could impact Census count in Dayton area

Census numbers determine political representation, federal spending

Though the region is still cleaning up from the Memorial Day tornadoes, the once-in-a-decade Census count will not be delayed — and the area needs to prepare, one Census expert says.

Peak Census count activities start at the end of January 2020 — just six months away. The count will begin in remote Alaska on Jan. 21. Most households will receive materials in the mail (or hand-delivered) beginning March 12.

“These storms, these tornadoes, will require a change in plans in how the Census Bureau counts the Dayton area,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant on the Census and a former staff director for a House subcommittee that oversees the Census.

Census counts are crucial. The numbers determine representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and allocation of some $800 billion in federal funding.

And the number is counted just once every decade.

“The time is certainly going to be critical,” said Erik Collins, county development director.

In Montgomery County alone, 2,236 structures were destroyed or left uninhabitable, according to the latest count. Many of those structures were homes and apartments, and many of those residents have moved or will move.

If a home is not habitable as of April 1, 2020, residents can’t be counted there, even if residents intend to return, Lowenthal said.

“It’s realistic,” said Barry Hall, president of the Old North Dayton Business Association. “Your home has been destroyed. Where are you going to go?”

Officials said the issue isn’t lost on them.

“We’ve been thinking about the Census ever since the tornadoes happened,” said Gwen Eberly, economic development planning manager for Montgomery County.

Once-in-a-decade chance

Lowenthal, a former staff committee director of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population, said the consequences of disasters linger and can be significant for Census counts.

“It is really is time for all local governments to be working hand in hand with their regional Census officials and their local Census officials,” Lowenthal said.

The bureau has already hired thousands of employees and it is gearing up right now, she said.

This area may require modified count methods. Staff will have to verify communities’ master address lists, Lowenthal said.

“If a residence is not habitable, it is not included in the Census universe,” she said.

If a home is vacant but habitable, it can be counted in determining eligibility for federal programs. Vacant but habitable homes count toward the “economic viability” of a community, she said.

However, Elizabeth Fussell, a Brown University professor who has studied New Orleans population changes in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, struck a cautionary note.

“To date, most tornadoes have not produced population loss,” Fussell said in an email. “Insurance coverage and FEMA disaster recovery assistance generally covers all homeowners and commercial property owners, including landlords.”

Fussell believes counties should plan for the next tornado and “how to address inequities in the distribution of recovery assistance.”

On our radar

While the city of Dayton was hit hard by the Memorial Day tornadoes, most of the damage was inflicted on businesses such as Dayton Phoenix and Lion Apparel in North Dayton. Mayor Nan Whaley said about 60 homes or residences were impacted.

But areas such as Trotwood and Harrison Twp. saw far greater devastation in residential zones, she said.

“We”re looking at what the overall impact is,” said Fred Burkhardt, executive director of the Trotwood Community Improvement Corp.

Trotwood Mayor Mary McDonald said the city is assessing whether people are living with relatives or outside Trotwood. They’ll use school registration data to secure those numbers, and they’ll look also at those who are rebuilding, and those who have insurance on damaged homes.

The city is also compiling an inventory of houses it has acquired from the county through tax foreclosure. Burkhardt said city leaders want to get those properties ready as residences as soon as possible.

The city’s community improvement corporation also will soon contract with a developer to build 28 or more mid-range single-family homes in Trotwood’s Sycamore Woods subdivision. Burkhardt said the corporation is close to a final contract with the developer, who will take control of 28 parcels.

He declined to name the developer, but he expects the project to break ground in late August or early September, with completion in mid-November,

“The two priorities are one, that everyone is safe, and second, that we return everyone to Trotwood that we can,” Burkhardt said.

Working with the Census

Getting people in touch with local FEMA centers — where they can apply for federal assistance — can influence residents to stay, Brandon Huddleson, Greene County administrator, said in an email.

Communities across the area have “Complete Count committees” made up of local officials who want to help the Census Bureau obtain accurate counts.

The local count committees can point Census enumerators to area shelters where residents may still be living, for example.

“Another action could be to help shelter operators gain access to computers for their residents to fill out the Census survey online,” Huddleson said.

In Montgomery County, official feels they have a little less than a year to get homes habitable again, Collins and Eberly said. They’ll work with Census staff in Philadelphia to capture people living in temporary arrangements.

“We have a time to get a lot of residences and apartment buildings back on line,” Gwen Eberly said.

Said Collins: “I think there will definitely be (population) shifting, but as (housing) inventory gets built back up, I think there will be shifting again” back to the area.

About the Author