LOWERNINE.ORG: yall come down now, y’hear?

ADOPT-A-DIRTBAG: Why not send a DPW / Gate / Burning Dude desert-rat hooligan (or yourself) to New Orleans to help rebuild with Lowernine.org?

Hurricane Katrina still haunts New Orleans, and she likely always will. She is an ogre. She is an abusive ex-lover out on parole. She is the backdrop, the turning point, the literal dark cloud hanging over everyone’s past, seeping out into the present, humidifying the future. Her human survivors remain buoyant — awash with both what-can-you-do resignation and silver-lining contentment.

Katrina gave America the biggest mother-nature bitch-slapping in its history … right upside this murderous and gorgeous city’s face. 80 percent of New Orleans flooded, and 1500 people died — half as many humans as the ones who perished on September 11th, 2001. Then, while the government callously sat back and watched in catatonia — like an 8-year-old pouring gasoline on an ant-hill — the good people of the United States mobilized to help.

When the storm hit, for a blessedly large number of out-of-towners, horrified empathy morphed into positive action.

Ricks the one in the grey T-shirt
Rick’s the one in the dark grey T-shirt

In 2006, Rick Prose chaperoned a church trip from Maine down to post-Katrina New Orleans with his daughter’s youth group. Working mostly in the Gentilly area, Prose shot some video of a man scavenging gutting debris on the curb. The scavenger said something like: “You think it’s bad over here … Wanna come see my house in the Lower 9th Ward?”

they say this thing is what broke the levee
they say this barge is what broke the levee … check out bargecase.com

The man granted Rick an interview, and escorted him around the horror of the levelled neighborhood. Houses had been scooped up and smashed into other houses; entire blocks whooshed away; moldy smelly unusable former-home-guts lay everywhere. The interviewee’s family had longed to move back into their residence, but poverty and the worst natural disaster in American history conspired against them. Deeply moved, Prose returned to Maine with a promise to himself to raise money for at least that one family.

In 2007, Prose gathered some bank, and brought groups of volunteers down to work on the man’s house. Denizens of the Lower 9 who stopped by to chat gave Prose and his people put a face (or faces) on the magnitude of destruction in that area. Inspired to migrate to NOLA and localize, a now-on-a-mission Prose raised the seed money to buy the house next door to the man’s. He converted it into volunteer housing space, offices, and a communal kitchen. Lowernine.org was born.

aww, container clubhouse, like the DPW tool shed
aww, container clubhouse, like the DPW tool shed

Now, two years later, four paid employees staff Lowernine.org, as well as a half-dozen long term volunteers who receive room and board and the satisfaction of good karma in the bank. The deal is: Residents pay for the materials, and Lowernine brings the hands on deck. They also train residents in carpentry and other skilled labor. Now, because of Lowernine.org, eighteen families live in their homes again, and 50 houses total have been tweaked in some way.

“I just keep asking people for money,” Prose jokes. “I’ve become a professional beggar. We’ve definitely had an impact on the community — not as much as I’d like, so far. But there’s only so much you can do. It’s all about time and money, right? … We are at where we’re at with the number of workers we have.”

Half the volunteers arrive via word of mouth from former volunteers; half found Lowernine.org on the Internet.

… You know where we’re going with this, don’t you? …

People building a city out of nothing, for no pay, just for the joy of doing it. Sound familiar?

On a recent weekday, this writer visited Prose at Lowernine.org HQ. The typical Lower Ninth Ward street (El Dorado) boasts candy-colored houses in varying states of repair. Wild sidewalks dip and stretch, overrun by grass. In the middle of the block, at the clubhouse, a shipping container converted into storage serves as shade for the front porch; a vintage RV with battened-down awning sits in the side yard. Laughter comes from inside. It’s lunchtime. Tanned and bedreadlocked volunteers in ripped clothing exhaustedly drag their feet, flopping onto steps or broken chairs or dusty rugs to inhale their lentils and rice. Though run-down and heat-stroked, they look happy.

Yeah. Happy, and spent. Reminds me of “home.” This seems pretty much just like DPW / Gate setup, but with humidity.

BRC-DPW dirty punks working
same work ethic

So. Um, yall. ::twirling hair::

Who’s got time to volunteer? Who knows how to do electrical and plumbing and sheetrock and yard work? Who wants to come to New Orleans for summer camp, maybe like after the event, when you already don’t have a job and you don’t want to go back home to real life anyway?

Failing that… Who’s got a semi-cushy job which allows them to maybe donate one shift to sponsoring a Burning Type hooligan in a week or more of service to this community? It’s $100 per week to house and feed one person at the Lowernine.org headquarters. Who wants to put their money where their mouth is?

Who’s got rich friends? Who’s got burrito money? Who wants to help rebuild New Orleans?!?

We’ve seen it before. It’s amazing what our dusty population can do when we put our minds to it. Burners Without Borders is the biggest and best umbrella for volunteerism and service built by this community so far. They came together in the wake of Katrina, left the desert for the Gulf immediately after the flood, and rebuilt a town, pretty much. Seriously, go read their website and blog stories after this. Kind of astounding, actually.

click for Burners Without Borders – “Burn on the Bayou” Katrina documentary trailer

But here’s the thing: Burners Without Borders isn’t anybody. Meaning, it’s us. It’s you. It’s whoever can come help out, or send a little pocket change to balance the scales.

So. Rick Prose and BWB made a deal: He will calculate the donations he receives from our kind (don’t forget to put “Burning Man” somewhere in the subject line) … and some of our best and dustiest will ship themselves out to the Crescent City to plumb, electrify, mow, roof, paint, sand, and drywall this place back into a shining jewel. Better than before.

We’ve already talked to a dozen DPW/Gate dirtbags who are chomping at the bit to conglomerate here after hurricane season. We won’t be going to the Burning Dude this year because of the needing to save money for a roof, so we can see you here in the hot hot months, if you’re a glutton for punishment like that (e.g., “Playa Restoration”). Lowernine.org needs skilled electricians and plumbers and roofers the most, but all are welcome, and overflow will be dealt with Burner-style. If Lowernine.org’s bunk-bed room gets full, we’ll just camp out in tents in the yard at our gutted house in the Lower Ninth across the street from the River and go fishing and have bonfires at night. Sounds fun, right?

We in this community know what New Orleans knows: If we don’t get together and start cleaning up the mess, Mother Nature is going to kill us all. Like, for real. This is NOT a test. This is all systems go. Plus: Drinking!

dirty punks: willya?
fix it, fix it, oh please fix it

So, in short, it’s time to save the world. Again. We know how to build a whole temporary city in a week … well, here’s a little corner of the country we could gussy up for good.

Now git to forwardin’, pretty please. There are hundreds of lists just under the Burning Man aegis alone, and plenty more theme camps and group chats and Facebooks besides. This is your sassafrass Southern flame-fired counterpart reporting from New Orleans: It’s still really messed up down here. Whether you’ve got some money or time to give, or some friends who do — Lowernine.org needs a hunka hunka Burnin’ love.

(We know huh. Worst pun ever.)

See you in NOLA, the City that Care Forgot. Yes? Holler.


dont forget to buy ammo
don’t forget to buy ammo

[UPDATE, LATE 2010: The Deepwater Horizon oilpocalypse made us leave NOLA, personally. *snif*] Volunteers always needed in the Lower 9 tho. Come on down, we said!

About the author: Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes has been rousting about at Burning Man since 1998. She first met her dusty DPW / Cyclecide / Bike Club fam-dambly on the back of The Bucket. A Cacophony Society enthusiast, Summer loves explosions and cake.

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