It’s just over a year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and Burners Without Borders (BWB) has spent the past 11 months partnering with and empowering local organizations and Burners to shift from immediate disaster relief to building resilience into Puerto Rican communities for the future.
“I think what’s important about BWB is that we both spear-head our own initiatives but just as importantly support what comes out of the community,” says BWB Program Manager, Christopher Breedlove.
“That support looks like several things, including volunteers, fundraising and communications. These projects need to get the word out about what they are up to, and there’s a lot of noise to compete with. By leveraging the Burning Man communication channels, we can effectively boost the signal.”
Christopher says he’s no longer surprised to find Burners wherever there is a need to rebuild infrastructure in places around the world.
“Puerto Rico is no different and as these projects continue, we want to direct our community’s energy and resources towards projects we trust and support like Sail Relief or others,” he says.
Sail Relief Team
At the end of 2017, after coordinating disaster relief efforts post Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in Texas and Florida, BWB looked for a community project in Puerto Rico they could support in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Enter Sail Relief Team.
The brainchild of Edgar Oscar Ruiz, a Puerto Rican Burner based in New York, Sail Relief Team aimed to sail from mainland US to Puerto Rico to deliver supplies after the hurricane hit.
“Our response and support boats allow us to respond to the immediate needs of disaster victims including search and rescue, first-aid, clean drinking water, and communications. Using sailing vessels allows us to operate in places where fuel is scarce in a self-sufficient way that contributes resources to affected communities without straining damaged infrastructure,” the Sail Relief Team website says.
Inspired, BWB partnered up with Sail Relief Team and fiscally sponsored the project, enabling the group to deliver the supplies and help with further recovery efforts on the ground.
The sponsorship also helped Sail Relief Team to recently create their own 501(c)3 non-profit, which is preparing for the upcoming hurricane season by shifting their attention to resilience building and partnering with more than 30 locals and organizations to make this happen.
“Currently we have several projects in the works in Vieques, Puerto Rico,” says Edgar, who directs Sail Relief Team.
“We are helping create an online book library through one of the initiatives to create a more integrated network of knowledge utilizing the resources available. We are also working on and developing several solar community projects,” he says.
“We are helping with the rebuilding efforts of the community at large in Vieques. We are overcoming transportation and logistical challenges to create a network of permaculture farms in the small island and also the big island.”
“We are also collaborating with other organizations to create a network of deployable volunteers to meet the needs of immediate disaster relief, all while collaborating with federal, state, local agencies and other organizations to create a more sustainable and resilient culture.”
Recovery and resilience-building are a long game, and Sail Relief Team will continue to need funding and volunteer support into the foreseeable future, says BWB’s Christopher, who is encouraging Burners to consider volunteering or donating to Sail Relief Team’s efforts.
The Art of Disaster Relief
BWB has also supported the building of a civic art project, MÚCARO, by connecting the lead artist, El Nino, with Burning Man’s Global Art Grant Program, and spreading the word about the project.
When Puerto Rico’s beloved artist, El Nino, set out to build a burnable structure in Black Rock City in 2017, few could have expected it to become the symbol it has become.
MÚCARO was a 32-foot-tall wooden sculpture of the Puerto Rican Screech Owl, which was dedicated to educators everywhere and inspired by the artist’s mother, who was a teacher in Puerto Rico for 45 years. The sculpture was designed to drive awareness about the region’s struggles, and as one of only two Puerto Rican Honorarium art pieces at Burning Man, it holds a special place in the hearts of those from the region.
But the sculpture took on new life shortly afterwards, when the region was hit by two Category Five hurricanes — Irma and Maria — and much of the area was badly damaged. El Nino wanted to do more after working with the immediate relief effort, so he came up with the idea of bringing his sculpture back home — only this time it wouldn’t be burned.
After speaking with Burners Without Borders, El Nino applied for and received funding from the Burning Man Project’s 2018 Global Art Grants Program and is bringing his owl back to life, like a rising phoenix from the flames.
Built entirely of hurricane wreckage, MÚCARO will return to Puerto Rico as a symbol of survival and a place for healing through creativity and community. The artist is also exploring how the owl might house a collection of books and function as a classroom for lessons in everything from crafts and art, to science and sustainability.
He also hopes “to create a refuge from daily challenges, a safe place to exhale, explore, and play again”, and he plans to invite local artists, fabricators, builders and teachers to be involved in its creation.
“This will not only provide work for locals, but create a community that is committed to bring inspiration and healing for others. When we work together on a goal that is bigger than ourselves, THAT is magic,” the artist’s mission says.
The art crew is still looking for a final location for the build, and they need to lock down their final budget before they start a crowd-funding campaign. However, they have started accepting in-kind donations and financial donations through their website.
Rethinking How We Fund Relief
Since Hurricane Maria, numerous cryptocurrency professionals have appeared in Puerto Rico under the banner of aid and new technology, but their approach has drawn some criticism from locals.
“Supporting a community post-disaster is always complicated, let alone for the crypto community to come in with a lot of large ideas but having little actual experience or connection to the island,” Christopher says.
He says there is a strong overlap between blockchain communities and Burner communities, and BWB has been talking to them about how to shift the crypto community’s mindset of “fixing the island” with crypto funds, to an inclusive, collaborative approach that uses human-centred design and builds resilience into the community.
Ben Ntl is one of these crypto-Burners. He moved to Puerto Rico to be part of the Puerto Crypto movement in 2017, and he wants to re-think the way the crypto community engages with locals, by creating a Burning Man Regional or Burning Man-like event where the goal is to “leave a positive trace”.
Tentatively called “Burning Brick Man, the event would forge bricks in the effigy burn, which would then be used to build donated homes for displaced citizens in Puerto Rico.
“It takes 8000 bricks to make a 1200 sqft home,” Ben says. “And we will aim to have at least enough bricks to build one house.”
According to Christopher, the concept is to utilize the interest, energy, and resources of traveling Burners and to funnel that energy into something that leaves infrastructure for the island
“While this idea is still in it’s beginning stages, its an interesting test-case in how Burners are thinking about how we apply old-school technologies (like events) with new-school technologies (like blockchain),” Christopher says.
“While Ben gathers the momentum and local community to assess whether this project has legs in Puerto Rico, he’s a new contributor in a long conversation about how we might have local Burns ‘leave a positive trace’.”
Where It All Began
Burners Without Borders began its life as a collaborative relief effort by a Burner crew of scientists, artists, engineers and builders after Hurricane Katrina struck the US Gulf Coast in 2005. It has since become a year-round effort to support the resilience-building skills necessary to secure a successful future for people around the globe.
The organization acts as a springboard for ideas when Burners want to take the ethos and the wherewithal they learn at Burning Man and put it to use in the default world, making it an ideal place for doers and problem-solvers to test their mettle.
In disaster relief, BWB often has advantages over more traditional relief efforts by government and other aid organisations.
In places where governments are unable to respond efficiently or effectively after unexpected natural disasters, BWB’s network of individuals and volunteers possesses the independence and agility to jump in and help wherever they can, from installing solar panels and digging wells to building new power grids.
Aid organizations also sometimes enter disaster relief areas and haphazardly drop supplies before leaving just as fast. But BWB partners with local Burners, projects and organizations and helps whole communities in the longer-term by collaborating and co-learning about how to create the essential tools for survival.
“Rather than coming in with a traditional savior mentality, we seek to engage with communities on an peer level,” Christopher says. “We believe that we have as much to learn from our partners as we do to share with them.”
As talks, funding and projects funding progress in Puerto Rico, we’ll keep you updated on the impact of these efforts, the momentum at Burners Without Borders and all the other incredible ways Burners will show up next.
If you would like to donate your time or resources to any of these efforts, please visit the Burners Without Borders website.
(Top photo courtesy of Sail Relief Team)