- The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Mississippi"s population was 2,910,540 on July 1, 2006. That"s up from 2,848,634 on July 1, 2000.

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JACKSON Angie Howarth has lived in northwest Mississippi"s DeSoto County for 35 of her 38 years, and she doesn"t need to study statistics to understand the area"s dramatic growth.


All she has to do is get behind the wheel of van and sit in traffic, or listen to her children as they talk about school.


"My children ... come home every other day and they have somebody new in their class," Howarth said in a phone interview from her business, Hernando Flower Shop.


Census Bureau figures for July 2000 to July 2006 - the most recent numbers available - show DeSoto County moved from having the fifth-largest to the third-largest population among Mississippi"s 82 counties.


Hinds County, home of the capital city of Jackson, still has the largest population. And coastal Harrison County, home of Gulfport and Biloxi, still has the second-largest.


But while DeSoto is growing, Hinds has been seeing a slow, steady decline in population as more residents pack up and move to the suburbs in Rankin and Madison counties.


And, after having grown steadily this decade, Harrison County saw a population decrease in the year after Hurricane Katrina blew ashore on Aug. 29, 2005.


DeSoto County officials say the area is seeing exponential growth as people move south from neighboring Memphis.


DeSoto County saw a 33 percent population increase, going from 108,625 to 144,706 over the six years. That was an increase of 36,081 people.


In the past four years, DeSoto County has opened 10 new public schools, going from 23 schools to 33. More are being built.


The local superintendent of schools, Milton Kuykendall, said about 10 new families a day move into DeSoto County. Voters in 2004 approved a $115 million bond issue to cover the growth.


Kuykendall said he"s not bragging when he notes that all the county"s schools are highly ranked. Mississippi uses five levels to evaluate schools" performance, with Level 5 being the highest. Kuykendall said 17 of DeSoto County"s schools are Level 5, and 14 are Level 4.


"The number one reason people move to DeSoto County is they want our teachers to teach their kids," said Kuykendall, who was just re-elected to another four-year term.


There are growing pains for the schools. Before the bond issue was approved, the superintendent said, some schools were forced to hold classes in spaces that used to be restrooms.


Howarth and her husband, Drue, own two businesses the floral shop and a video rental store. She said both are thriving, although it"s hard to know whether that"s because of the population growth or because of a healthy economy.


DeSoto County is seeing an expansion in other businesses, from big-box retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart to smaller national chain stores.


Howarth said with a growing population, there is a wider selection of restaurants and there are more activities such as youth soccer. That"s good news for her family: The Howarths" children are 6 and 10.


"I think it has changed the character some, but the growth has helped as well," Howarth said. "It"s helped us to broaden our tax base for one thing."


From July 2000 to July 2006, the Census Bureau estimates that Hinds County"s population went from 250,593 to 249,012. That"s a loss of 1,581 people, or less than 1 percent.


During those six years, Harrison County went from 189,699 residents to 171,875. That"s a loss of 17,824 people, or 9 percent.


Harrison County"s peak population was 193,187 people in July 2005. There was a post-Katrina drop of 21,312 people, or 11 percent, over the next year.


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