How Did Those With Addiction Fare During Hurricane Harvey?

By Keri Blakinger 09/05/17

Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey put those with addiction and on medication-assisted treatment in a tight spot in an already tense situation.

 Houston emergency services with cars across the flooded street in Houston, Texas, US

When a hurricane whips into town, some people stock up on water, canned food and gasoline. Others look for heroin and clean needles.

Addiction doesn’t stop for natural disasters, and that’s why Johnny Durst of the Montrose Counseling Center headed out to the streets in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last week, ready to hand out soap, clean water and bleach kits for syringes.

Drug users in the Houston metro area “did what they had to do to get what they needed,” Durst told Rolling Stone. Some waited for lulls in the storm so they could go out and get their fix while others worried about how to stave off symptoms of physical withdrawal.

On Reddit, opioid users swapped stories about past experiences surviving storms in the midst of an active addiction. "Before a storm everyone was buying out all the water and bread and I was buying all the dope to last through the floods,” wrote one Redditor.

"[Hurricane] Matthew fucked our shit up,” wrote another. “The entire town was in ruins, yet the day after, there I was driving through down trees, debris, live power lines, no traffic lights, cops everywhere, but I still got my shit.”

And it’s not just hurricane survivors struggling with illicit substance use who are impacted. Those on legal methadone programs end up suffering as well.

Texas Public Radio talked to one man on a maintenance program who ended up in rough withdrawals after he got evacuated to a shelter in San Antonio. “We’re alive and some of our needs [are] getting taken care of, as far as having a roof over our head,” the 56-year-old said.

But despite the respite from the storm, he was feeling the pains of detox. “You get the hot flashes and cold chills and sweats and teary eyes, runny nose, just aches and pains,” he said, adding that it hadn’t been possible for him to get to clinics since the storm—and the one he had made it to wouldn’t accept his insurance.

Even in a hurricane, the state said, the drug needed to be picked up at the clinic and could not be delivered to a shelter. 

But sometimes instead of making it harder to get dope or methadone for a few days, the destruction of major weather catastrophes—and the accompanying trauma—can serve as the spark that sets off a struggle with addiction.

"At first, I numbed the flashing images from those days of Katrina with alcohol and pills, trying to drown out the anxiety and depression just like the floodwater drowned New Orleans," Hurricane Katrina survivor Eliza Player wrote in 2014.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.