By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
January 06, 2006
Many remain scattered to every corner of the nation. Some are still living in hotel rooms; others are with relatives, or in government-supplied trailers or apartments. Hundreds of thousands are living, more or less comfortably, back in their own homes along the Gulf Coast.
Starting Tuesday, researchers from Harvard Medical School will be dialing more than a quarter-million phone numbers trying to find representatives of this diverse community of Katrina survivors. They'll chat with them, every three months, for at least the next two years, as part of a $1 million study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
The researchers want to know how they're doing, emotionally and physically, what they've been through over the past five months, and what the government and various private relief agencies could do to make their return to a more normal life go easier.
"We're trying to get our fingers on the psychological pulse of this population," said Ronald Kessler, a professor of health-care policy at Harvard who studies mental-health issues among various social groups and is head of the project.
Although disaster mental-health experts have been busy in the region - 425,000 Katrina victims have met with counselors in Louisiana alone - "there's no systematic evidence available about exactly how many people face emotional problems or if those issues are being dealt with or not," Kessler said.
"It's worse here because people are so scattered, spread out all over God's creation, so we can't just go to the place where the disaster struck, we've got to beat the bushes."
More than 100 specially trained pollsters will be calling not only the areas hit by Katrina, but towns thousands of miles away, asking if anyone who lost their home to the hurricane is there.
They'll be working with various survivor lists compiled by relief groups where evacuees left contact information, and calling hotels where the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still putting people up. And they'll call cell phones that for thousands of people remain a rare link to their old lives.
Ultimately, the researchers want calls to yield 2,000 people - half from New Orleans, half from the rest of the affected Gulf region - who will form the Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group.
Although all participants live or lived in counties declared Katrina disaster areas, Kessler said the attitudes of people from New Orleans and surrounding areas flooded by failed levees are likely to be somewhat different from those expressed by others living along the Gulf Coast.
"They're not just survey subjects," the researcher added. "We're calling them 'advisers' because we want them to stay with us over the long run, at least the next two years, telling us what's gone right, what's wrong and the problems they continue to have and any barriers they're seeing in getting help."
The advisers will also be asked what they might do differently to improve their recovery if they were president, and about their attitudes toward various government and private relief agencies.
"We're finding that a lot of people are having trouble reconciling the extreme breadth of their loss, homes gone, traditions gone, community gone, along with the difficulty of assimilating into a new environment, or being in some ambiguous state waiting for even temporary housing," said Anthony Spier, director of disaster mental-health operations for Louisiana and a collaborator for the new survey.
Since shortly after 9/11, Kessler has headed a federal task force that's tried to come up with a standardized approach to tracking the mental health of people impacted by disaster. The task force has done pilot surveys, including interviews with dozens of Katrina victims in recent weeks.
"We've found that people want to talk," Kessler said. "Normally, you don't keep people on the line longer than 30 minutes for a survey, but we've had trouble getting an interview done in two hours. We're not going to cut anyone off."
All the interviews are being digitally recorded, and, with participant permission, will be posted on a Web site along with summaries of the first round of responses, which should be analyzed by the end of February.
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