For the first time since Hurricane Katrina caused a mass exodus, U.S. Census data released today show that metro New Orleans’ population has returned to just below pre-Katrina levels.

According to the Times Picayune, the seven parishes which make up Greater New Orleans grew from 1.1 million residents in 2007 to 1.13 million in 2008. The population was estimated to be 1.3 million by the Census Bureau in July 2005, a month before Katrina. That’s 170,000 more than the latest estimate. This is good news for parishes with rising population because those numbers determine how much federal grant money a parish can receive.

But the Census report also suggests that three parishes including Jefferson, the metro area’s second most-populated parish, fell slightly from 2007 to 2008, a finding that Jefferson officials dispute.

The Census data also show that Orleans Parish remains well below its pre-Katrina population of roughly 450,000. The latest estimate shows approximately 300,000 as of July 1, 2008. However, while some neighborhoods remain largely vacant, the current population estimate is 100,000 residents higher than the 2006 low point.

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