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New Orleans' 'Katrina Generation' struggles with drugs and depression

Suicides are up and hard drugs are more prevalent – trends that are both linked to the hurricane's legacy, experts say.

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Zac Moser was 21 when he accidentally overdosed on heroin last year — a casualty his mother, Cathy Moser, says is seeded in Katrina. The hurricane arrived the semester her son had planned to attend the University of New Orleans, which was forced to close.

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Instead, he took a waiter job outside the French Quarter, which gave him ample cash, a late-night schedule, and a doorway to a drug culture; the person who sold him the fatal dose was a fellow waiter, according to an FBI investigation.

Drugs became more prevalent in New Orleans after Katrina, says US Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Warren Rivera. Local dealers relocated to Texas cities like Houston and discovered they could purchase the drugs directly from Mexico. Some 90 percent of the drugs in New Orleans come from Mexico, Mr. Rivera says.

"They cut out the middle man, that's what Katrina taught them," he says.

That direct access is coupled with a diminishing healthcare infrastructure in New Orleans. Charity Hospital, the city's leading medical center, closed indefinitely after the disaster. Faced with a $2.1 billion state budget deficit, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) earlier this year announced plans to close the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital. That would require adults and children currently treated there to travel 30 miles outside the city to receive mental healthcare.

"Those of us on the front lines talk about people and they talk about dollars and those two conversations are never going to be parallel," says Saussy. "Trying to make case about improving mental health, the silence is deafening."

Yet the death of Madeleine Prevost, known locally as Maddy, rocked the city. It was one of seven overdose deaths of young people related to heroin in the first half of 2008, according to the FBI.

"Maddy's untimely death certainly raised awareness" among parents, says Saussy. Part of the difficulty in addressing the issue is it can go undetected for so long. Madeleine Prevost returned to New Orleans three months after the storm to discover the homes of both her mother and father destroyed and the family dog missing.

"That was big loss for my daughter," says Mary Prevost, a public school social worker.

Prevost says Madeleine spent more than a year conducting online searches for her dog on Petfinder.com as they moved from apartment to apartment. She also started volunteering at the city animal shelter.

Months before overdosing, Madeleine showed signs she had worked through much of her grief through therapy sessions, Prevost says, but there still remained a "greater recklessness."

On the weekend of her death, Madeleine had been out with a friend whom the family knew and trusted. Later, he pleaded guilty to providing her with the drugs that caused the overdose.

Prevost thinks the toxic mixture of drugs with which her daughter experimented was "like taking roller coaster ride, and she did not have a thought about the possibilities. She was putting the top down on the convertible and driving over the big bumps. Maybe that's more attractive to kids here."

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