Hurricane Harvey: What Happens to Drug Users During a Storm? – Rolling Stone
Johnny Durst headed into the streets of Houston equipped with toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap and water on the evening of August 30th, just days after Hurricane Harvey had ravaged the city. He went straight for the parking lot of the Fiesta Mart south of downtown, just to to north of the Highway 59 bridge where a large number of homeless folks, many of them active drug users, rode out the storm in tents. Durst, an outreach worker with the Montrose Counseling Center, had other important supplies to give out to people who needed them – bleach kits for IV drug users to sterilize their syringes.
“Getting affiliated with one of the local volunteer agencies that are established is really crucial,” NVOAD’s Gregory Forrester says
In his syrupy Texas drawl, Durst explains over the phone that people told him they “did what they had to do to get what they needed.” That meant that, while other people may have been seeking out small amounts of food or water during breaks in the storm, these people were out looking for drug dealers when the rain let up, hoping to score enough to hold them over until the next lull. For people who are physically dependent on a substance, their need to avoid withdrawal symptoms could trump their ability to tend to other crises happening around them.
It’s not just people whose addiction has led them to homelessness who prioritize drugs during storm prep. Posts on the subreddit r/opiates show people trying to figure out how to stock up on drugs before Harvey hit Texas, or wondering whether dealers will serve them during a hurricane. One commenter wrote: “Before a storm everyone was buying out all the water and bread and I was buying all the dope to last through the floods.” Another poster said he was planning for two to three days of “a ghost town,” while commenters offer suggestions like trying to get ahold of Suboxone, an opiate blocker that can be used to stave off withdrawal symptoms.
“If a person in active addiction is seeking a drug of use, they usually know where they can go to get something,” says Matt Feehery, CEO of Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC), an alcohol and drug treatment center in Houston. “If there is a disruption to that, where the people they usually see or access drugs from leave or are displaced, they will be left trying to find someone who has it and can provide that.” On another post in r/opiates, a commenter wrote: “[Hurricane] Matthew fucked our shit up. 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.”
A 2011 study following Hurricane Katrina found that many active drug users chose not to evacuate before the storm. As Eliza Player, who was addicted to heroin in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, wrote in an essay for The Fix, “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?” Not only that, but many navigated the flooded, debris-strewn streets, choosing to expose themselves to danger in order to try to get what they needed, much like the people who stayed under the Highway 59 bridge in Houston instead of seeking shelter.
This impact, which is often traumatic for those who experience devastation, loss, or displacement as a result of these storms, can lead people to self-medicate with substances. “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,” wrote Player. The Centers For Disease Control found that rates of hospitalizations for substance use disorders increased in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more so in the areas that experienced the most flooding. Even among people who had evacuated to Texas, they saw a spike in treatment numbers. Similar results were found after Sandy, too.
“If a person in active addiction is seeking a drug of use, they usually know where they can go to get something,” says Matt Feehery, CEO of Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC), an alcohol and drug treatment center in Houston. Hurricane Harvey: What Happens to Drug Users During a Storm?
thumbnail courtesy of rollingstone.com