updated 1/5/2006 6:45:17 PM ET 2006-01-05T23:45:17

The struggles and stories of 2,000 Hurricane Katrina survivors across the country will be documented regularly over the next two years in a project that aims to track their recovery. Their tales will be published and their advice sought for government policy makers, researchers said Thursday.

The first results are expected to be posted online by the end of February, said Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School, director of the project.

Participants will be interviewed every three months about such topics as their mental and physical health, hardships in getting treatment and how good it is, their financial and housing situations and practical problems they face like getting a child into a new school.

They'll also be asked what they'd do about their plight if they were the president, and what should be done differently in aid efforts. The project will also assess their faith and trust in local, state and federal officials as well as private relief agencies. Kessler said the project considers the survivors to be advisers.

More than 1 million people were displaced from their homes by Katrina.

$1 million effort
The effort to find out what is happening to them is being financed with an initial grant of $1 million from the National Institute of Mental Health. Next week, 250,000 randomly chosen households across the country will be contacted by phone to find what Kessler called "those needle-in-the-haystack-people" who now live well away from their homes.

It will also use lists of names assembled by the Red Cross and other organizations, and of hotels where survivors have been staying. In all, the effort plans to get a representative sample of 1,000 people from the New Orleans area and 1,000 from hurricane-affected areas elsewhere in Louisiana and in Alabama and Misssippi.

Kessler said he expects some results to differ between the two groups. New Orleans experienced a flood and a lot of public attention afterward, while the other areas had a hurricane and less public outpouring, which could cause some resentment, he said. In addition, the hurricane was an act of God while the New Orleans flooding was widely viewed as "an act of bad bureaucracy .... There is a potential bad guy here in New Orleans for people to blame," he said.

Those in the study who had lived in New Orleans will be asked questions to give some insight into who may return to the city.

Quick feedback loop
Kessler said that after each wave of telephone interviews, the project will write a summary report for government officials within a week so they can make better-informed decisions about what's working and what isn't. The repeated reports will give them quick feedback on the effect of steps taken since the previous interview wave, he said.

Updated results also will be posted on the project's Web site quickly after each wave of interviews for the public to see, he said.

Kessler noted the work will unearth firm information on the mental health effects of the disaster, because the participant data will be compared with the results of past national surveys, including data from the Gulf area.

Apart from statistical data, the Web site will include the participants' accounts of what has happened to them, though their names will not be revealed.

"We're asking them in their own words to tell us their story," which will be recorded and put on the Web site, Kessler said. Every three months, interviewers will ask what has happened since their last talk, and "we'll turn the tape recorder on again," Kessler said.

"We're actually going to have for posterity, long-term textured information about the lives of these people."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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