Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

[This dispatch reported by Boy Scout]
Biloxi, Mississippi

Today the crew started to clear a set of four lots between Kuhn St and Sophia St near Howard Ave. The gulf is a clear shot from these lots and they got the full force of the waves that hit the shore. Every building within the path were pushed in several blocks and then washed out to the sea leaving 3 to 10 inches of white sand with beautiful full shells buried within. These houses are what is called ‘gone-gone’. They are a total loss with nothing left standing that did not leave the premises before the storm. The 4 and 5 storey buildings in the distance are casino barges that have washed up over a hundred feet from the shoreline.

One man I met across the street, John, had a yard covered with his collection of hundreds of 12″ LP records and upside down cars half sunk into the ground. He found 6 out of 8 nicely carved posts from his front porch up to three blocks away. He showed me a photo of a beautiful wood sided home taken a week before the storm.

Everyone in the camp took shifts clearing out the rubble, fallen trees, wrecked appliances, and foundation piers. We slavaged as much of the cinder block onto four pallets ready to be fork lifted out. The giant Daewoo excavator, Daawoo front loader, and tiny Kubotou tractor were running all day clearing everything into giant piles on both streets. Lunch for the crew was courtesy of a church run community recovery center. Thin meat chili and a cheese roll. Tomorrow, when the machinery finishes clearing out the big pieces, we’ll rake/shovel out whats left. Today’s find – a makeup case full of not totally wrecked wedding photos of a Viet family.

Dinner was hamburgers and corn courtesy of Salvation Army. Plain but good warm food followed by yet another burn barrel under the street light next to the dome. There is a permanently hot bonfire in the back for those who desire quiet. There is no shortage of wood to warm the night and entertain the pyromaniac burners.

Many people in the community prefer for the Temple Crew to do their clearing because we try to salvage what building supplies we can to help defray the cost of replacement. We are only doing lots for the people who were uninsured or underinsured. Mostly shrimpers and elderly who got little or nothing but free meals, blankets and maybe a FEMA trailer. Many of the folks here work the shrimp boats and used the cash to buy everything.

Although the distribution center is closed because most everyone is out in the field all day, there is a steady stream of folks coming to the temple to give or ask for aide. The community and the relief agencies are taking care of feeding us (along with everyone else) with endless carbs and sugary snacks. Last Sunday the temple had a great vietmanese luncheon for the ‘day of sorrow’ holiday the monk declared. Many many families came out for mediation and chanting. The church next door gave out a semi trailer full of blankets and warm coats. The traffic jam was worse than Van Ness Ave on a weekend day.

We are endlessly thanked for our efforts by everyone we pause to talk to. Yesterday we got an invite to eat at a six grill bbq set up next to a field of trailers.

Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

Biloxi, Mississippi

Been a long time since there was an update from the Katrina Relief zone, so I’m going to take a whack at it. But where to begin?

First, the weather. Cold, rain, is this Seattle or what? We had a tough day a week or so ago, when our long suffering dome cover final split down the middle and sloughed off, in a rain storm. Louie and the crew hurriedly covered our stock, and a few days later we rigged a temp cover until a new one could arrive. But if we think we’ve got it rough, all we have to do is literally look out the back door: this man lost his wife in May, and his job and home to Katrina, and is now living in a leaky tent in his front yard. We cleared out his yard, and removed the tree that landed on his house, but he can’t get back in yet because of a typical conflict with his insurance company; they’ve told thousands that since the waters rose first and THEN the storm hit, it was uncovered flood damage and not covered hurricane damage. While the lawyers argue, he and thousands more slowly loose hope.

This man lost his wife in May, and his job and home to Katrina, and is now living in a leaky tent in his front yard.
This man lost his wife in May, and his job and home to Katrina, and is now living in a leaky tent in his front yard.

Work and needs-wise, things are definitely shifting, at least in the Biloxi area. The immediate, hand out food/water/shelter/clothes part of the effort is winding down–in fact, for the time being we’ve closed the donation dome in Biloxi, so we can instead move our work crews inside where they can stay at least a little warmer, as the cold fog of winter slides across the gulf coast.

Instead, we’ve been focusing all our efforts on finding those who’ve been overlooked, like sending teams into Placemines Parish south of New Orleans. Some parts of PP were under 30+ feet of water for WEEKS, so you can imagine what the place looks like.

Austin (on Gregory's truck) delivers some clothes and food down near where the Mississippi meets the Gulf and borrows a little "protection" from one of the locals...
Austin (on Gregory’s truck) delivers some clothes and food down near where the Mississippi meets the Gulf and borrows a little “protection” from one of the locals…

The Temple crew and the burners with HANDS ON USA in Biloxi have instead been tearing into the hard, dirty work of clearing people’s destroyed homes. In some cases, it’s so they can rebuild. In others, it’s just to clear enough clean space so FEMA has a spot to part the trailer they’ll be loaned for a year.

me, Louie, Austin, George, Cab and Max, post clean up on Elmer Street. The 85 year old woman in the hat has lived here for decades; all we found that was salvageable were her son's military records, and some dishes.
Me, Louie, Austin, George, Cab and Max, post clean up on Elmer Street. The 85 year old woman in the hat has lived here for decades; all we found that was salvageable were her son’s military records, and some dishes.

The absolute best news we’ve had lately came rumbling down the street, when the _wonderful_ people at Doosan Daewoo ( a multinational manufacturing company), who had heard about what we were doing and liked it, delivered to us “to use as long as you’ve got use for em” a BRAND NEW, still-plastic-on-the-seats articulating front end loader and excavator. OK, big whup you might think–till you’ve see what these things can do to a pile of rubble.

Here Cab, Mischka, George, Phil, Richard, Chaos and others work the loaders, a tractor, rakes--it takes every piece to really clear a place out. Oh, see that big open space? A house was there just a few hours before...
Here Cab, Mischka, George, Phil, Richard, Chaos and others work the loaders, a tractor, rakes–it takes every piece to really clear a place out. Oh, see that big open space? A house was there just a few hours before…

And yes, orange “DPW” stickers are already on their way down there, so we can slap em on our new machines.

Our new toys, however, are raising the hackles of the contractors who’re being paid to do similar work, and some politicians are siding with them–what, you don’t want it done for FREE? Politics is intruding all along the gulf coast, from still-locked-down parts of New Orleans ( where we saw the Counter Current group and their mobile media bus at the very laid back New Orleans Decompression and BBQ, and hooked up again with the Third Line Circus folks, both of whom are working in some _tough_ hoods doing crucial work with forgotten communities ), to Waveland where the Rainbow Family is encountering some troubles with their _amazing_ “New Waveland Cafe,” to Biloxi and the no so subtle attempts to push out the poor of East Biloxi, to make way for new developments that are sure to follow last month’s decision to allow casinos on land again.

No matter–there’s an almost limitless amount of need for help to just clean things up so people can get back to work and on with their lives…which is exactly what we’ve been doing. And when it gets dark at around 5pm, we come home for a big group dinner, sit around what appears to be the only allowed burn barrel in the whole city (somehow the police seem to sense we’ve got fire handled ), play guitar, race wheelchairs, and tell stories–the people who have volunteered and showed up in Biloxi are without a doubt some of the most interesting, amusing, funny, well-traveled, most open minded and biggest hearted people I’ve ever had the chance to meet. Lemme tip my cap here to (apologies for whom i’m forgetting): Juan, Max, Richard, Phil, Austin, Chaos, Mischka, George, Brett, Chris, Jeff, Cab, Louie, Cowboy, Gregory, Linda, Andy, Corry, Monte, Doctor, Teresa, Peter, Angel, Erik and all the others– bless you, all

Work rebuilding the Buddhist Temple is nearing completion–which is also why we’re moving our rather large tent city seen here into the dome in the back.

So, what’s next? More of the same, more clean up, more helping people as best we can until…well, we don’t know when. Some of us are jokingly calling ourselves “BEMA” ( Burning Emergency Management Agency, as opposed to the much reviled FEMA), and starting to wonder what we could do at next year’s event to collect resources to help in other emergencies. Meanwhile, volunteers are signed up through Christmas it seems, and some are planning on coming in January. We’ve been having a blast explaining exactly who we are ( we’re the only non-organize, non-non-profit, non-for-profit, non-church group working along the area, except perhaps the Rainbow Family in Waveland) and how we all know each other. Yea, the days are long, and nerves are getting rubbed raw, and some days cleaning yet another pile of rubble gets a little old. And yet somehow we get up, have another cup of Cowboy’s brazilian coffee, another Louie omelet, another morning taping up ankles and knees, and grab our tools, and head out again.

For questions/volunteering in Biloxi, please contact Richard Scott at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

Biloxi, Mississippi

This is a quicky: if you’ve got frequent flyer miles that you’d be willing to donate so people could go volunteer in the Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, or if you’d like to go if only you could get there for free, please email me at Tom Price. No promises, but we’ll see if we can’t get a couple more warm, willing bodies down there getting the job done.

Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

Biloxi, Mississippi

From Anthony in NOLA:

On the heels of another evacuation (and an actual storm this time, but I don’t need to tell you that) we are having the 2nd annual New Orleans Decom.

This is a no money, no commerce, no big whoop event.

I’pricet_6m bringing a grill and a cooler of some stuff to grill.

You bring something.

This is all about the relaxing. Come enjoy a day along the river with some other burners.

Where? At the fly, (it’s officially riverview park) behind Audubon park. Drive til you find a small Nissan frontier truck with a large piece of tie dyed cloth on the caper top. Look around. I’ll be close.

When: Sunday Nov. 6th. starting about 1 p.m. til the park closes at some point around 8:30.

The Biloxi Temple crew and friends are fo sho gonna be there–and we’ll be bringing our BBQ, coolers of beer, and wheelchairs for racing (it’s a Biloxi thing).

We’re happy to pick up every/any one along the way, and bring you back. Contact me for ride details, see you there!

Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

[from Stuart Updegrave]
Biloxi, Mississippi

There is still a constant ebb and flow of volunteers through the temple – ten new arrivals in the last two days, in fact. Amani (from Seattle) has returned to the Biloxi area (working with World Shelters on her first trip down) to join us at the temple. Amani’s friend Savi arrived this morning; she is 15 years old, here until at least Nov 1st, and will be receiving school credit for time spent volunteering here. Another burner crew (Chaos, Doc, Monty and Teresa) rolled in yesterday with a 24′ truck (which they bought for an art project, but decided to use to help the people of Biloxi for now) – they’ve eagerly dived in, helping out on various projects already. Richard’s friend Linda arrived yesterday morning – she’s likely to take over cooking responsibilities after I leave. And there’s another posse that came in (Ryan from L.A., Rachel and Mandy from Toronto) to help out as well, working in the free store and helping finish up the drywall effort in the temple building.

Jim left this morning to go spend some time with his son in South Carolina. While here, he talked to several bicycle shops to solicit donations of used bicycles. A shop in Ithaca NY committed to send 100 bikes down, and he is talking to a few shops in Seattle as well (including BikeWorks, which has helped many Sea-town burners find playa-worthy wheels).

We’ve made progress on getting basic services moved back indoors. Richard salvaged a stainless steel three-tub utility sink from the old Catholic church across the street; after cleaning and re-plumbing, it is now installed in the temple for us and the temple staff to use for dishes. Yesterday, Thomas moved the washer and dryer into the temple (they were previously residing in the driveway). And today, Chaos is going to plumb a sink and flush toilet in the bathroom to go along with the shower.

The cover on the large dome used for the store has taken some wind damage over the last few days. Richard spoke with Asha, the owner of Pacific Domes, who says they will fabricate and send us a new cover. This is wonderful news!

The store is still providing for at least 100 people per day, with supplies still rolling in. Occasionally, we get large resources for use by the temple volunteers and staff (such as the full-size chest freezer which arrived this morning – which will be used mainly to store ice as it comes in), but most shipments consist of food, water, toiletries and cleaning supplies for the community. Yesterday, some cots and blankets arrived, which were eagerly received given the cold nights recently. We are still working our various networks to drum up more donations of tents, sleeping bags and warm clothing. Steve and Elena (the Peace Corps / FEMA folks who stayed here a few nights) are bringing in some coats and blankets tonight, I just heard. Wonderful news!

I’m heading back to Seattle on Friday morning, with mixed emotions. I feel like I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the work that needs to be done here, yet wonder how much difference I am making personally.

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.

Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

Biloxi, Mississippi

Here’s the latest from Biloxi sent in by Stuart Updegrave…

There has been a flurry of activity around here the last few days, with progress on a lot of fronts. Phil Lindsay (father of Matt of the BM temple crew) got a water heater installed in the temple on Wednesday, about two hours before he and the kids left. Phil also led the ongoing effort to replace the water-damaged drywall and insulation in the temple. As a result, we’ve been able to take hot showers (as opposed to using a very playa-style frame-and-tarp shower). Our washer and dryer are still out in the parking lot, though. But hey, at least we *have* them.

There has been a lot of work to repair the damage to the temple’s garden (which was recently graced by a turtle that Richard probably rescued from a soup pot).

We had a huge influx of clothing on Wednesday – after being picked through for a few days, the remainder got bagged up and is going to be made into quilts for Pakistani refugees displaced by the recent earthquake near Kashmir.

Richard managed to acquire a forklift for a while from Dave Romero, but Dave reclaimed it a few days ago. Richard, the consummate deal-maker, had already scoped out the other forklifts in the area (they make unloading large shipments of water and other goods so much easier), and wandered down the block to a marine supply shop down the street, owned by a Vietnamese man named Liam (ok, so that’s what it sounds like, but probably not how it’s spelled). They cut a deal that the temple crew would help Liam re-roof his store in exchange for use of the forklift – so Thomas and I spent a few hours yesterday and this morning working up on the roof, until the heat got too intense.

A lovely side benefit of doing this is that we made friends with Liam and his wife Twin (again, phonetic). She gifted us with about 10 pounds of whole shrimp, which I boiled this evening and served with a big pot of hoppin’ john (good southern food – rice, black-eyed peas, bacon, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers). Certainly the best meal I’ve had since I got here. This morning, Twin told me that she would bring over some fresh egg rolls tomorrow for me to fry up for the crew. After dinner last night, a few of the guys made jokes about getting me a skirt and keeping me in the kitchen – funny thing is, I brought down a few sarongs, and would be just as happy to cook for people as to do roofing, drywall, landscaping, whatever.

Richard has a line on a few items of heavy machinery – an excavator and a loader. We were sitting around last night and he was musing about how to find people who might need lots cleared for trailer placement. Shortly thereafter, a guy pulled up outside and asked if we could spare any ice (the freezer in his FEMA-issued trailer had broken already). Richard gave him a couple bags, and chatted a bit. Turns out he’s on the Biloxi City Council, lives a block or two away, and is willing to work with us on identifying local folks who might benefit from having their sites cleared once the equipment arrives.

We’ve had a big loss of population in the last few days – besides Phil and his kids, three of our other crew also left on Wednesday. Vu, a Vietnamese guy (who works as a policeman in Jackson) left this evening. On Tuesday, however, Thomas (one of the leads on this year’s project The Machine) showed up here, after working three weeks with the World Shelters crew. World Shelters is an organization from Arcata, CA, which has been setting up temporary shelters both for agencies and needy families. Many of their volunteers are also burners, most of whom came down from Seattle.

Burners Without Borders – Report from the Field

Biloxi, Mississippi

In the field with Richard, aka Big Stick:

This week has been awesome, the weather cooler and no rain. Our distribution center is running well! Stocked with loads of cool stuff from all over the US. We are still seeing 200 people daily through the big red Pacific dome. The kids are great and the families are really starting to show trust and appreciation for us.

We unloaded 600 sacks of rice on Wednesday by hand and, when we found out that 36,000lbs (that’s 760, 50lb bags) were arriving on Friday we decided to steal a fork lift, “just for awhile.” Anyway, we as volunteers distributed more rice this week than any other grass roots bunch anywhere in the south. Rice anyone?

Three new Playa Pals that drove across country are really making a huge difference. After a day of travel recovery, all is well, just remember it is a climate of constant change. We are looking forward two new volunteers from the West and North West, the Machine Crew is here and clicking and we are tricking. The big shots are totally impressed with our “people power” attitude, and the professionalism. What did they expect!

We had a grand BBQ last night “Saturday” thanks to the fine folks that gave donations at the decom, that I heard was awesome. It was the first big sit down dinner we had in days. “Thanks to all that kicked in”.

Huge hurdles have been overcome, the temple now has electricity due to all’s efforts, no more generators Yea!!!

The insulation and drywall inside the temple is being installed by several groups of volunteers and the spirits are good. This facility is the shining star in a pile of blown out rubble.

Swag (in the form of Team Duke t-shirts from the John Wayne Foundation, via Patricia Arquette–don’t ask) bought us a ton of phones and wi-fi, two potential techy type burners who installed the system in our World Shelter playa worthy structure and message zone shined like a star on a dark night. We were able to check our mail and go on line for the 1st time without being rushed. It was glorious!

Some of crew have finished rebuilding a temple in Bayou La Batre (about 30 miles away and hit hard) and will start painting it on Monday.

We continue to struggle a bit dealing with the devastation and trying to find common ground with good people that have lost everything, but we know that the little difference that we make is making a change in the lives of East Biloxi.

Later, Richard