Milwaukee Man Says He’d Still be Hooked on Drugs if Not for Hurricane

August 29, 2006

If Hurricane Katrina had not devastated New Orleans, James DeAngelis says he would still be there hooked on crack, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol _ his life for the past decade.

After the hurricane, the 39-year-old ended up in Madison, where drug dealers gave him credit or he traded his belongings for drugs.

After about four months, he said he finally had his awakening — he had many bottoms previously — and knew his fresh start in Wisconsin wasn’t so fresh. He took a bus to Milwaukee, entered an adult rehabilitation center and now he’s been clean for five months.

“It was what I needed,” DeAngelis said. “I think a lot people got different things out of the hurricane. Luckily for me I heeded the, I guess, inner voice in my head saying to change and you know now (I’m) just looking forward to starting a new life.”

DeAngelis was one of more than 2,000 people who came to Wisconsin in the aftermath if Hurricane Katrina, which blasted the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline a year ago. Many of those evacuees chose to remain here.

DeAngelis now lives in a transitional living apartment with a roommate, has a temporary customer service job and finally has a few possessions, food, cleaning supplies, TV and stereo. He hopes to someday stop taking the bus to work and buy a car to drive to a job selling building supplies.

Before he got clean he would look longingly at a restaurant near his apartment.

“I would be sitting there sometimes after spending all my money or something like that and looking out the window saying, ‘I wish I could be like those people.’ I would see families go to eat and I would be like, “I wish I could be normal.”’

The night he decided to get clean, he said he had traded his furniture for drugs, he barricaded himself in his apartment and got high. He realized he didn’t have any friends, just “using friends.”

DeAngelis wanted to get clean for his three kids and to win back his third wife, who left him because of drugs like the other two. (She since moved to Japan and is pregnant by another man.)

DeAngelis, who moved from New York to Louisiana when he was 18, lived in New Orleans, but the day before the hurricane hit he went to the Houston Astrodome, where he saw a flier to go to Madison.

He found Dane County social worker Rita Adair, who chartered a bus and took 13 people to Madison. She had found a landlord who offered to reduce the rent on 20 apartments.

She said she ended up using 11 apartments, and eight adults and a child still live in them.

“Some have done well and some have not done well,” she said. “Everybody came with whatever baggage they had in their life in the south.”

The Red Cross, which had 1,472 shelters nationwide, had two shelters in Wisconsin, one at State Fair Park in West Allis and the other at St. Francis Retreat Center in Burlington.

About 1,200 volunteers and workers for Red Cross helped out, said Shannon Hext, public support coordinator for the Greater Milwaukee Chapter of the American Red Cross. She said they spent more than $1.1 million in Wisconsin.

State government calculated its costs so far also around $1.1 million, which the federal government will reimburse, according to Wisconsin Emergency Management. It went toward public housing authorities who housed evacuees, and to state and local agencies that helped shelter them.

Wisconsin also got $628,487 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help counsel traumatized evacuees, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The state still had 1,801 evacuees mostly from Hurricane Katrina but also from Hurricane Rita as of mid-June, according to FEMA.

Steve Falek, associate director for the housing authority in Milwaukee, said the authority is working with about 62 people in apartments, down from a peak of 130.

Many families that they worked with were the last to leave the south, he said.

They had a lot of issues, like mental health and substance abuse, he said.

“If you live in one place in one part of the country and now you are living in a place you don’t know much about … a lot of us would be overwhelmed by those kind of things,” he said. “When you have other issues in your life that’s really a daunting challenge.”

He said some haven’t made up their minds whether they will return home.

“I think they want to go back but they don’t know what there is to go back to.”

Adair, the social worker, said her effort was harder than she expected because she didn’t have time to plan anything.

She did much of the work on her own time and went to Houston on her vacation.

“They had a lot of needs, there were a lot of different personalities. I sort of became their lifelines. It was a very demanding period of my life at that time,” she said.

But she said she learned a lot and would do it again.

“It has taught me I have a mission in life and I’m not going to stop,” she said.

DeAngelis said a structured lifestyle has helped him stay off drugs and alcohol.

“I think a lot that helps me is every day when I catch the bus or something I see people still out there, so that really helps me because I look at them and say, ‘Yeah that could me but it’s not because I chose to change my life.”’

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