Before Katrina hit, untold numbers of its victims already were suffering a different kind of wrath: drug addiction.
By Julie Bell and Matthew Hay Brown
Originally published September 13, 2005
Now, thousands of addicts are thought to be among the hundreds of thousands displaced by the storm, seeking drug fixes, recovery or simple compassion in the new places they are temporarily calling home.
The diaspora has created challenges in communities from Alexandria and Baton Rouge, La., to Houston and San Antonio, where taxed addiction counselors already have full caseloads and, in some cases, all staffed treatment beds are full. In communities where addicts are arriving, there is concern about the long-term worsening of local drug problems, but also stories of heroic compassion.
Some addicts who relocated to shelters have sought prescriptions for the painkiller OxyContin and other narcotics. Others simply tell intake workers they are users or in a perilous phase of recovery - in need of methadone to keep withdrawal and drug cravings at bay. Still others are given away by the body tremors, sweating, diarrhea or vomiting that withdrawal can bring.
"They thought they had a viral infection going through the 'dome, there were so many people going through withdrawal," Dr. Robert Bacon, a psychiatrist at Riverside General Hospital's methadone clinic in Houston, said about illness among evacuees at the Astrodome.
Adrienne Francis, 44, sought treatment at the clinic yesterday. She was among those who suffered through withdrawal symptoms, even as she fled the hurricane with her family.
The former heroin user from New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood lost two of the three methadone doses she had obtained to tide her through the storm when she gave up her purse to a man who was menacing her at the Superdome.
'It's very miserable'
Yesterday, as she recounted the story on the balcony of the two-bedroom North Houston apartment she is sharing with her son, a daughter, her granddaughter, her mother and 11 other family members, Francis nervously chain-smoked and scratched at her arms, legs and body under her "Hold on tight, you're in Texas now" T-shirt.
"It's very miserable: I thought I was going to die," she said about the dry heaves, cold and hot flashes and shakes so bad that others had to help her stand before she was bused to Forth Worth, treated with methadone at a hospital and then driven to Houston. "I didn't think I was going to make it here at all."
Now, she is one of hundreds of evacuees who have sought methadone treatment.
Some arrived at shelters with addiction counselors who, rousted by Katrina, chose to stay with addicts as they fled treatment or halfway houses in the path of the storm. They made their way together to shelters, churches and, in some cases, treatment centers in other locales, ensuring treatment continued even as the hurricane raged.
Just how the migration of Gulf Coast users in storm-ravaged Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana will affect the availability of drug treatment and the patterns of illegal drug trade over time isn't clear.
New Orleans wasn't known as a major entry point for drugs. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Mexican, Colombian and Caribbean traffickers bring cocaine into the state via interstate highways from Miami and Houston.
In addition, Louisiana's Southeast parishes - those around the city - had an epidemic problem with abuse of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, according to the DEA. Unlike the rest of the state, New Orleans also had a significant heroin problem, while rural areas struggled more with methamphetamine - Louisiana's fastest-growing drug problem, the DEA's Web site says.
Richard Curtis, who is chairman of the Department of Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and has consulted with the New York Police Department on drug trafficking, said some lessons might be gleaned from what happened to New York's heroin market in the early 1960s.
There was a shortage of the drug for nine months, after the Mafia decided to get out of the business of distributing it, he said. Then the market began to rebuild itself in a different way.
"What it did is it allowed an opportunity for a lot of newcomers to enter the business," Curtis said. "But they weren't organized: They were freelancers. They were moms and pops.
"The drug markets, like other markets, are going to be chaotic for a period of time."
So, perhaps, are the shelters and clinics trying to help addicts.
In Alexandria, La., the Red River Treatment Center added cots to accommodate 17 addicts and accompanying staff members who fled two more-southerly treatment centers ahead of the storm. The 56-bed center was full.
"We just took 'em in," said David Durbin, a regional director with the state's Office for Addictive Disorders who lives in Alexandria. "The first day or two, they were there as shelter. Then, as it looked like some of them would not be able to return, we just admitted them."
Now, he said, the central Louisiana center is considering permanently expanding its capacity to make up for the 60 or more beds lost at damaged shelters and to serve those who have moved into the area as they fled the storm.
In Baton Rouge, where the population of 235,000 nearly doubled with the influx of hurricane victims, the Baton Rouge Treatment Center has picked up an extra 200 methadone patients, the Chicago Tribune reported. Infusions of staffers from other clinics have allowed the center to persevere despite long lines that promise only to get longer.
"We know they're just going to keep coming," clinic director Carl Kelley told the Tribune.
Addicts also are among the tens of thousands who have arrived in Houston and San Antonio, cities that already have significant problems with drugs shipped across the Mexican border.
In San Antonio, 40 to 50 hurricane victims a day board vans at their shelters and ride to a government-funded methadone clinic. There, they take their daily dose of the drug, along with the 165 addicts the clinic already was serving daily, said Leon Evans, executive director for the state and local agency that runs it.
The methadone clinic at Riverside General Hospital in Houston has taken on five hurricane evacuees so far, in addition to the 100 patients already treated there. Some addicts came prepared, but now all of them need help.
"You've got people who left before the storm, but they didn't dream they'd need that much" methadone, he said. "You've got others who left with just the clothes on their back. After two weeks, they're all in the same boat. Everyone's out of resources."