Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

Biloxi, Mississippi

Several times a day, we have the sound of the Red Cross truck driving past with its annoying horn-bleat, and the announcement “Red Cross. Hot meals, cold drinks.” If only the meals were a little better. Once in every four or so is passable, but the rest leave something to be desired. At least it’s fuel for the body, which is important to the people around here.

There are many who have essentially nothing. Houses gone, living in small tents in driveways. They come in each day to get some canned food and a case or two of water bottles – one old woman told me this morning that she needed water for fifteen people. It’s interesting, though – nobody wants the canned water provided by the beer companies.

We’ve been setting families up with huge tents, two or three a day. On Saturday morning we sent another out to provide temporary housing for a family of six – they had been renting, and are currently living in a smaller tent. The owner of the place they were renting is apparently considering selling out to the casinos (which have permission from the city to move on shore now). This will leave these people homeless. Things like this are hard to take.

One of the predominant problems we’re hearing is of people who didn’t have flood insurance – they are covered for wind damage, but not water. If your house was destroyed by a spawned tornado, then that’s clearly wind damage – but if it floated off its foundation and into the neighbor’s yard, the insurance companies are likely to call that water damage. Most of the houses around here sustained water damage – unless they were lucky enough (paradoxically) to be destroyed by wind.

The roof on Liem’s shop is finished now – but we still see him or his wife Twin a few times a day. They stopped by today (Sunday morning) to deliver a big bag of egg rolls, and invited me and Thomas to go down to their [friend|family member]’s shrimp boat. We went down for a while and saw the boat back in from last night’s run, and came home with another grocery bag full of shrimp. It was my first time to the beach since I arrived. Seeing the huge casino barges sitting on the land firsthand is really humbling. Every fresh view into the damage caused by Katrina continues to humble me.

Today is the first time the store has been closed since it opened, nearly six weeks ago. This came about partly because Richard and the other volunteers wanted a break from it, and partly because Thay (the master monk) requested a day where he could have services without the interruption and chaos of people coming in to get supplies from the store.

Cowboy (or Jay) and Bob (who is frequently rather silent) continue to do covert ops, bringing us ice and hooking us up with tools as needed. They’re here as grassroots volunteers, working to set up a permanent free clinic in Biloxi.

There’s an old Vietnamese woman who sits in the back of a pickup truck outside the temple gates nearly every morning, selling fresh persimmons and some other fruit I haven’t identified yet.

Pirate Pete (burner from Maine, who has been here for several weeks) is an unstoppable bundle of energy. He frequently will load up the basket on his bicycle with the latest useful booty and go for a ride through the community – giving out flashlights and batteries, baked goods, etc.

We’ve had several new volunteers arrive: Jim Rohrssen, from Lopez Island, WA; Steve and Elena, who work with FEMA and are here to coordinate with us – they have been in the region for five weeks, in various locations; Michelle and Karen from Florida (Michelle is here with another crew, and they both plan to stop by periodically to help out); and Gregory, a long-time temple crew burner from Austin (who arrived with a huge converted bus, pink with flames on the windows). Jim has been organizing fundraising events on Lopez since the Saturday after Katrina hit land, raising $5000- the very next day. He’s planning an event on Nov 19th that will feature gulf coast (Cajun / New Orleans) cuisine, along with blues and zydeco music. If you’ve been down in the Gulf volunteering and are interested in talking about your experiences at this event, contact Jim.

I rode into Gulfport on Friday to get a replacement cell phone. Along the way, there were lots of areas that didn’t seem to be terribly damaged – until you noticed that many houses had uniform roofs: big blue tarps. This reminded me of flying in – as we curved northward from our route skirting the edge of the Gulf, the number of blue tarps covering roofs was incredible – Thomas likened it to flying into L.A. and seeing pools in nearly every yard.

We recently received a shipment of school supplies – approximately 250 book bags filled with notebooks, pencils and folders, an equal number of interactive learning aids, a bunch of boxes of crayons, etc. We’re going to schedule a kids’ day soon to give all this stuff out.

Richard says that the odds are good that David Best (who designed and led the efforts to build the temples for Burning Man every year prior to 2005) will come down to do some work on Chua Van Duc temple. The temple structure itself is relatively plain, and Thay wants it spruced up – when he saw my photos of this year’s temple burn, he got very excited and made sure I would help him get some improvements made to his temple.

We’re expecting for the promised excavator to arrive sometime between Wed and Fri this week. Hopefully by then Richard will be able to cut through the politics so that we can actually put it to use helping people get their yards cleared, damaged houses demolished, sites readied for trailers.

We continue to eat well – we got a huge delivery of pastries this morning, which were nice to snack on for the early risers. Late morning, Jim made a big batch of fruit crepes. We just got finished with lunch – Thay invited the entire crew in for a Vietnamese meal – noodles with tofu and vegetables, rice, fried egg rolls, followed by an odd (to western palate) but enjoyable dessert (a mochi-like gooey ‘shell’ surrounding a bean-based (lotus?) filling with ginger), followed by a tea service. And tonight, I’m planning to fry up the egg rolls Twin gave us, to go with grilled shrimp and salmon burgers.

As can be expected, many people here are paying close attention to storm season, particularly since Hurricane Wilma is so close. While Thomas and I were at the shrimp boat this morning, I looked south into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a line of clouds running SE / NW, about 50 miles out. Yes, that’s Wilma. She is currently looking as if she might run aground at or around Marco Island, FL, where Bev and I went with a bunch of friends for New Years several years ago.

Two Atlantic storm season records have been broken in the six days I’ve been here: first, Wilma became the most powerful storm on record (as measured by barometric pressure – it bottomed out at 882 millibars), and now tropical storm Alpha – the 22nd named storm of the season – has formed and is causing more flooding in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The previous record was 21 storms, established in 1933.

There is still work to be done here. If you want to come down and help out, please call Richard at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Addendum, Monday 24 Oct 2005

It’s getting cold and windy. Even those of us who are used to the vagaries of playa weather woke up cold this morning. People here need tents, sleeping bags, blankets, warm clothes. If anyone reading this has connections to camping supply stores or companies and can get donations sent this way, please do so! Coordinate through Richard (at the number above) for delivery. When I get home to Seattle on Friday, I’m going to starting pounding the pavement trying to get donations from the various outdoor companies there.

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.