My heart quickens as I follow Hurricane Isaac’s progress right now. Eerily, it was seven years ago to the day 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.
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 helps 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.
Landon started staying with us, but soon wore out his welcome in the coming days with his surly, aggressive behavior. He consumed hard liquor and pills with a vengeance. He got into our pill stash, stumbling around with our pills tumbling out of his pockets, until we banished him from where we kept them.
Very early the next day I was woken by a female acquaintance screaming inside the apartment. Groggy from my hangover, I rolled over and pulled myself up. When I peered into the tiny bedroom where Landon had been sleeping, I saw him face down on the ground. Dark, burgundy blood pooled under his blue face. I stood over him for a moment, before heading to the kitchen for more drugs. After carefully cooking down some sweet Fentanyl from a patch, my husband and I filled our veins with the soothing liquid.
Once I'd tasted it on the back of my throat, someone went out and returned with a canoe I that I'd seen floating near the yard. We dragged the canoe indoors, and then it took all our strength to lift Landon's stiff body into it. Scraping the canoe against the linoleum, we emerged into the sunlight and carefully pushed the boat into the water. We waded silently alongside the canoe through the warm floodwaters: a dawn funeral procession. We went to the back of the neighborhood, in a secluded corner, under a tree. We tipped the canoe over, and the water cradled Landon's body as he sank. Then it floated up again, turning over to bury his face in the water, so I didn't have to look into his dead eyes. Taking the canoe with us in case we needed it again, we returned to the apartment and shot more Fentanyl.
Other, bloated bodies popped out on the streets of New Orleans in the following days, with cold, blue lips, like an old Voodoo tale meant to scare the young’uns. I thought of poor Landon, and the leathery feel of his skin.
The final decision to leave the city was pretty much made for me. Twelve days in, I was wandering the deserted streets littered with branches and debris, when I was spotted by a military patrol. Uniformed men rushed out of a dark green vehicle, concerned for my safety—I’m sure I looked a mess. Dazed, and afraid of being arrested, I froze. I remember them trying to put me in the vehicle as I backed away, mumbling something about my things, my husband. They told me they would pick my husband and me up in the morning, giving us time to gather a few possessions—if I didn’t leave, I would go to jail, they warned.
So 13 days in, evacuation seemed my only option, though I was still reluctant to go. With no power for TV or radio, I could only see what was within walking distance. I had no idea how bad the situation really was, and simply thought things would be back to normal in a matter of days as the water dried up. But my alternative was incarceration, so I left.
Still in my drugged daze, I made my way with my husband to the Louis Armstrong Airport, via a military vehicle, a holding center and a bus. From there we were eventually flown to Providence, Rhode Island. Although I’d escaped New Orleans, I hadn’t escaped the confusion, fear and regret in my head. Almost everyone I knew was still unaccounted for, and the landscape of my life was in ruins. For years to come, I would struggle with the bloated images that rolled like a movie reel through my thoughts.
Although it would be two more years—via a spell in jail—before things finally began to fall into place, I still believe that my recovery began the day I left the waterlogged city of New Orleans and boarded the plane. I find that many addicts are just as stubborn as I was. In recovery circles, we often hear that we must hit rock bottom before we can begin to get better. Although rock bottom is different for all of us, it’s often a cataclysmic event.
My recovery began long before I stopped using. It began when I was waist deep in dirty, infected floodwater. 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. But somehow, the memories of those 13 dark days forced me to peer through the fog of alcohol and drugs, just as they forced me out of the city and away from my constant source of a fix. Slowly, the events surrounding my experience during Hurricane Katrina made me realize that life was, in fact, passing me by, and that I no longer wanted to live like this.
I wonder, sometimes, if it was the death that surrounded me in those 13 days that convinced me. The smell of dead bodies lingered in my hair for weeks after I left New Orleans, and I tried desperately to wash it clean. The images of blue and bloated lips lingered much longer—but finally they came to remind me how precious life is.
So many people I knew remained missing for weeks and months after the storm. But over time, most my friends turned up in one way or another—today they are all at least accounted for. Over time, the smell of death faded. New Orleans’ reconstruction gathered momentum, as did my own recovery. Both moved at a trickle to begin with, and neither can be sure of long-term success. But I remember exactly what it felt like to be there, and I am so thankful to be here now.
It took a cataclysmic event to show the stubborn addict I was that it was time to change my trajectory. It took losing everything. But I guess that’s why they call it rock bottom. My rock bottom was filled with water.