BOSTON -- Weariness, anxiety and pessimism are pervasive among survivors of Hurricane Katrina, according to preliminary findings of a major study announced yesterday by the Harvard Medical School.
Four months after the storm ravaged the Gulf Coast, "a lot of people are having trouble reconciling the extreme breadth of their loss," said Anthony H. Speier, director of disaster mental health operations for the Louisiana Office of Mental Health, and a collaborator on the study.
"Their homes are gone, their sense of community is gone, their sense of tradition is gone," Speier said.
With names provided by FEMA, the Red Cross and other relief agencies, the investigation will monitor 1,000 people displaced by Katrina from New Orleans and 1,000 from other affected areas, including Mississippi and Alabama.
Rather than mere survey subjects, the participants - spread across the country and representing a broad spectrum of age, gender, race and socioeconomic status - will be known as the Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group. Their common experience is that all had to leave their homes because of Hurricane Katrina.
Dr. Ronald Kessler, a Harvard Medical School professor who is the lead investigator and architect of the survey, said yesterday that interviews with these survivors over a period of at least two years will provide information on the pace and dimensions of individual recovery. These data, focusing strongly on the survivors' mental health, could offer insights on how the more than 2 million families whose lives were disrupted by the storm are faring.
Kessler characterized the undertaking as "giving people an opportunity to tell their story." But he also said the study will provide information to help in future emergencies, allowing response experts to work toward what he called "the routinization of disaster" - much as a hospital emergency room treats extraordinary health occurrences as everyday events.
Many of the questions will focus on government response to the storm, as well as attitudes toward agencies and officials, Kessler said. Along with issues such as the degree of trust in government, "we are asking about satisfaction and lack of satisfaction with a wide range of organizations and entities," he said.
The study also will explore subjective qualities such as whether individuals feel optimistic or pessimistic about their personal situations after the hurricane.
Starting in late February, the survey results will be made available to policymakers. The findings also will be posted on the study's Web site (www.HurricaneKatrina.med.harvard.edu), along with oral histories from survivors.
Kessler said the participants will be interviewed by telephone at three-month intervals. He said the 100 interviewers who have been trained for the study will be monitored to help prevent burnout. "It's pretty tough work to listen to these stories all day," Kessler said.
Although the Community Advisory Group project will have its official launch Tuesday, a pilot sample has been under way since soon after the Aug. 29 hurricane, Speier said.
These early interviews suggest that the level of anxiety among survivors is increasing, Speier said. One reason, he said, is that so many people do not yet know where they will settle.
Kessler said he expected to find different results among the survivors from New Orleans and those from other parts of the Gulf Coast. He noted that the hurricane experience was quite different for the two groups. "New Orleans didn't have a hurricane. New Orleans had a flood," he said. "What happened in Mississippi and Alabama was an act of God. And what happened in New Orleans in many people's minds was an act of bad bureaucracy."
Thus, he said, "there is a potential bad guy for people to blame in New Orleans, but not in Mississippi."
Initial interviews also showed that survivors outside New Orleans feel they have been neglected in terms of public attention, Kessler said.
"It's like, `How come no school kids in New York City are taking up collections for us?' It's all New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans."
The study is funded by a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times.