Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

Biloxi, Mississippi
from Tom Price, aka Thumper [as dictated to Will Chase]

Flying into Biloxi, Mississippi, I was stunned at the number of swimming pools until I realized that every house didn’t have a swimming pool, but a blue tarp for a roof. To give you an idea of the level of destruction, imagine a flat neighborhood near the ocean. Raise the sea level 15′ and bring it inland 10 miles. Then add 100+ mph winds for 12 hours.

I have yet to see a single home that’s habitable. There are no stores open. All the wrecks of homes have orange spray-painted runes, marking the number of bodies and the date they were searched. Four-story casinos the size of several football fields floated inland bulldozing office complexes before settling sideways in residential neighborhoods. It’s been a month since Katrina … but it looks as though it could have happened days ago. The stench of rotting flesh is everywhere, and a constant reminder of the many bodies of humans and animals left unclaimed.

One of the few bright lights (actually one of the only lights period) are the flood lights illuminating the bright red geodesic dome now serving as a gathering place and 24-hour free supermarket that the Burning Man Temple Crew erected in the parking lot of the Van Duc Buddhist Temple. Half the team of volunteers works from sunrise until long after dark, unloading, sorting and giving away food, medical supplies, clothing, diapers … everything a person needs to survive. The other half are using their tools and heavy equipment (cranes, bulldozers, etc.) to rebuild the Temple pretty much from the ground up.

The entire 3-acre complex is run completely as a gift economy. Some people bring things, some people take things … nothing changes hands except the occasional thanks.

Traditional non-profit groups like The Red Cross, Oxfam and World Shelters are now using an adjacent block at a catholic church that was also cleared out by the Temple Crew. To give you an idea of what that job entails, when they first arrived, the parking lot was covered in 3 feet of mud and filled with cars, boats, trucks, and two houses that had ripped off their moorings and drifted down the street. What’s hard to comprehend is that this description applies to everything in a 10-mile wide, 100-mile long strip of Mississippi.

One of the few amusing things here is seeing this 3-acre spotless parking lot with pickup trucks adorned with Burning Man Temple Crew logos and a bright red geodesic dome, and someone has attached to the front fence a sign that reads “Reserved for Theme Camps Only”.

At night the only sounds are gas generators and cicadas (but we’re working on getting some house music). And of course all of this is a backdrop for a constant stream of Vietnamese immigrants who don’t speak English, but immediately get their head around the gift economy. Temples are where the Vietnamese are traditionally used to coming to get what they need, so this is quite fitting.

As I speak, there’s a crew of Rangers building a shelter for people to sleep in at night.

How You Can Help
People are asking what’s needed. The short answer is everything. The needs change from hour to hour, as supply trucks arrive and unload their cargo. But what we need no matter what is fuel, cash, and people who can come and stay for a while to work. If you come, we have everything you need to live. There’s food to eat, places to sleep and people who need your help.

People want to see their money being used well … a bunch of my friends gave me money when they heard I was coming here, and I gave it to the guy who’s running the place, who used it immediately to buy gas to keep the generators running, the refrigerators cold, keeping a minimal electrical grid going, fans, power tools … and to fuel the bulldozer and crane. Essentially everything needed to keep this operation going. Material relief we have … for the time being, there’s no need for food and clothing … that time will come.

The important thing to remember is, even a month later, there’s still a need for basic survival supplies … those things are still coming, but we are at the receiving end of an avalanche of good will. What’s most needed is somebody who can help organize the receiving and distribution of these supplies. It’s hard to assess what people’s needs are … they first need to figure out where to go and how to get help. These people are incredibly traumatized, as you can imagine, and every bit helps.

If you’d like to show up in Biloxi and help, please call Tom Price on his cell phone at xxx-xxx-xxxx for instructions. The circuits are loaded, and sometimes sketchy, but keep trying. If you’d like to donate cash, you can do so immediately by making a payment to Tom’s PayPal account, which is the email address: price_tom@hotmail.com. He will ATM the money out and immediately put it towards the continuation of the operation. For any other questions or comments, please email katrina-relief (at) burningman (dot) com.

About the author: Tom Price

Tom Price is the former Executive Director of Black Rock Solar. Prior to that he was the Environmental Manager for Burning Man during the Green Man theme, and was in the Gulf Coast for six months during the genesis of Burners Without Borders. He's been attending Burning Man since 1997, and he's proud to say that his decade plus streak of breaking down from sun stroke on the playa on day three remains intact.