Natural disasters disrupt 2020 census as deadline looms

Mike Schneider
The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — Already burdened by the coronavirus pandemic and a tightened deadline, the Census Bureau must now contend with several natural disasters as wildfires and hurricanes disrupt the final weeks of the nation’s once-a-decade headcount.

The fires on the West Coast forced tens of thousands of people to flee homes in California and Oregon before they could be counted, and tens of thousands of others were uncounted in Louisiana communities hit hard last month by Hurricane

Laura. Nearly a quarter million more households were uncounted in areas affected this week by Hurricane Sally.

The disasters add to the already laborious task of counting every U.S. resident and increase the risk that the effort will miss people in some parts of the country.

The disasters make it challenging or impossible for census takers to visit households that have not yet answered questionnaires. And time is running out, with less than two weeks left until the census is scheduled to end on Sept. 30.

Health risk: In major cities in California and Oregon, smoke from nearby wildfires poses a health threat for census takers as they knock on doors.

“It’s really smoky, and no one wants to open their doors because of the hazardous air,” said a San Francisco census taker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that she could lose her job.

Officials in San Jose, California, are encouraging residents to respond to census questions online or by phone or mail.

If there is an undercount, states affected by the disasters could be shortchanged when some $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed annually to pay for roads, schools, health care and other programs. Since the census also determines how many congressional seats each state gets, states such as California that are on the verge of losing a seat because of declining population could see political power diluted.

Deadline adjustment: Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said the recent disasters are another reason the deadline for ending the 2020 census should be extended by a month.

Because of the pandemic, the Census Bureau pushed back the deadline for finishing the count from the end of July to the end of October. Then the

agency announced last month that the deadline would be changed to the end of September after the Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass a Census Bureau request for more time to turn in numbers used for redrawing congressional districts.

Some Democrats and activists believe the expedited schedule is politically motivated. A coalition of cities and civil rights groups are suing in federal court in San Jose, seeking an extra month.

Uncounted households: The Census Bureau estimated there were 248,000 uncounted households affected by Hurricane Sally in Alabama and Florida; 34,000 uncounted households affected by Hurricane Laura in Louisiana; close to 80,000 uncounted households in California affected by wildfires; and 17,500 Oregon households also threatened by the flames.