Junkies in the Hurricane

By Eliza Player 11/28/14

As Hurricane Sandy menaces the eastern seaboard, addicts will have their own concerns. An ex-heroin user recalls the 13 dark days she stayed on in New Orleans after Katrina hit.

Residents on roof of flooded house in Hurricane Katrina
A whole new New Orleans Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My heart quickens as I follow a new hurricane's progress. It was just a little over seven years ago that Katrina nearly destroyed the city of New Orleans—and me. I remember the wind’s howling and the feel of wading in warm water up to my waist. I remember the smell of campfires, sewage and death. But most of all, I remember the urge that drove me every night and day.

People often ask why I didn’t just get out of New Orleans. The answer is simple, and will ring true to any addict: I stayed behind because I didn’t have enough heroin to last more than a day. I never even thought about leaving my beloved home city. Why would I venture to some unknown place where I had no idea where to score? Nope, I was staying right where I was. My then-husband and I were then staying with friends in the Treme—a semi-shady neighborhood just outside the French Quarter—in a large mansion broken into small apartments, mostly housing other addicts just like us.

We didn't watch the news or read the paper. I hadn’t heard a word about Katrina as she tore through the Caribbean and Florida—causing 14 deaths and over $1 billion of damage, and growing in strength as she circled into the Gulf of Mexico. I was too busy chasing my next fix. I was then 30; the needle had taken over my life years earlier, and I’d found work lucrative enough to support my habit in the strip clubs on Bourbon Street.

Most of the dealers abandoned New Orleans, but unguarded pharmacies remained.

I finally heard the first whispers of a hurricane on August 27, two days before Katrina hit. By then, cars were already lining the interstate to evacuate and hammers were pounding away, boarding up windows and doors. Around one million people were fleeing from the city and its suburbs, many of them never to return. Still, my only concern was to find enough dope to get by. I managed to procure a couple of bags on the front, then set out to make money and hopefully score enough for a few more days.

Looking back, I can hardly believe my indifference to the wider situation. I didn’t hear Mayor Ray Nagin’s warnings, urging citizens to leave, telling us that Katrina was the “real deal.” I didn’t watch even a minute of the coverage, featuring the crowded interstates, the storm’s predicted path, the rush to close down the city, and the footage of the Superdome shelter of last resort that would soon make news worldwide.

I stayed out all night before the storm hit, and on into the daytime, drinking in bars and trying to dial the dope man. I tried number after number: all the different dealers in my mental Rolodex. In desperation, I kept the whiskey flowing down my throat, mingling with the vile poisons of early withdrawal. As I staggered home in the morning, dirty and feeling like death, the wind was picking right up and the rain began.

So as Katrina bore down upon New Orleans, I was sick in bed in Treme. Our friends had now left, so only my husband was with me in the apartment, while a few other addicts and acquaintances hung on upstairs. I could hear the television in the next room, and the air conditioner blasting above my head—until the power went out and I was briefly woken by the silence. All I cared about was for my withdrawals to subside.

The next day, I woke up in the fogginess of Seroquel—an antipsychotic that can help you to sleep through withdrawals, which I’d been given by a pharmacist who was a regular at the strip club where I worked. I expected to find the world just as I’d left it. Slowly, I pulled on my clothes and left the tiny apartment. Crawling up the stairs, with the painful gait of a junkie just risen from a hellish kick, I realized the power was still out. I stepped onto the balcony, into the sunshine, wiping my eyes and grasping my stomach, and stared in disbelief. The streets had morphed into slow-moving rivers.

Crucially, the rules of scoring had also changed; most of the dealers had abandoned New Orleans, but unguarded pharmacies remained. Making a foray into the flooded streets, I gingerly picked my way through the already-busted window of our darkened neighborhood pharmacy. Gripping a cooler in one hand and a lighter in front of me, water sloshing in my shoes, I tried to be stealthy. Rows of those cheap white metal shelves still held pills, liquids and powders in neat lines: an Aladdin's cave.

Quickly, I turned the bottles around to see what treats they contained. Making rapid decisions, I pulled nearly every third bottle into the cooler. I made a beeline back to the apartment. My cooler overflowed with bottles and boxes: Fentanyl patches in 100mg, 50 mg and 25mg; Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin; Haloperidol in pills and liquid, 2mg, 4mg, 10mg and 25mg; Seroquel, Trazedone, Thorazine and Lamictal; Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Dilaudid; Phenergan with Codeine Cough Syrup. It was a glorious sight. Right then, I thought I would never be dope sick again.

The next days were filled with the sounds of howling dogs and helicopters, as I went on with the business of a junkie. Endless pills put me in a fog, and although we never managed to score heroin, we found that cutting our Fentanyl patches open, squeezing out the gel, adding water and cooking it up was the next best thing. As the days wore on and the waters receded a little, the insanity of the situation became clearer. We barely ate, save for a few MRE meals we found littered on the streets; they seemed to be scattered everywhere in their brown plastic bags—we figured the military must have just been leaving them around—and as well as food, they contained little necessities like matches and aspirin.

Mostly, we consumed liquor and pharmaceutical cocktails. I chased my whiskey with warm cola. The water from the faucet began to look brown and dirty—though amazingly the flow stayed strong the entire time. I used the tap water to shoot up, taking a few sips here and there to ward off the Louisiana heat.

On one of our walkabouts, a few days in, we ran into another junkie, whose name was Landon. He was reeling from the sickness of withdrawal. I noticed him across Esplanade, with his shaggy blond hair hanging over his eyes. Landon was probably 25, but he looked so much older as he ambled confusedly through the debris, covered in mud. The sickness screamed from his eyes, so we invited him back to get high. 

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