FEBRUARY 01, 2006

Hurricane Katrina survivors have stories to tell. Harvard Medical School is going to use those oral histories to study the psychological impact of the disaster to help officials better handle future disasters. The school's initiative will recruit 2000 evacuees—1000 from New Orleans and 1000 from other areas affected by the disaster—to serve on the Hurricane Katrina Advisory Group.

"A lot of people are having trouble reconciling the extreme breadth of their loss. [The survivors] are in the in-between land of evacuee and looking for temporary housing,"commented Anthony H. Speier, PhD, director of Disaster Mental Health Operations for the Louisiana Office of Mental Health and scientific collaborator on the study. "We have reports of people being confronted with overwhelming situations and not being able to go on."

Because survivors have been dispersed around the country, the researchers will use cell phone numbers and other contact information from 1.34 million families who turned to the Red Cross for aid. Interviewers also will visit hotels and motels where the Federal Emergency Management Agency houses evacuees, as well as making random calls in the hopes of reaching other displaced survivors.

Members of the advisory group will participate in telephone interviews every 3 months. The interviewers will ask a variety of questions about the experiences during and after the hurricane, the recovery process, physical and mental health problems, health care issues, and opinions about the performance of government and private relief efforts. The participants will be asked to give an oral history of their experiences during the disaster to build a permanent archive that can be used by policy makers, historians, and the public to understand the magnitude of the disaster.

The project, which is funded by a $1-million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, will last 2 years. For more information, visit the initiative's Web site at