Katrina cleanup with Burners Without Borders

The experience, the people, the need

by Linda Quinet

Pictures: Pearlington, MS | Camp Katrina | Crawfish boil | Swamp tour

Overall before and after pictures

An unhappy anniversary—a year after the storm hit

When I arrived in ravaged areas of New Orleans in late May, it was obvious people were pulled emotionally between wanting to rebuild or flee. Besides it was almost time for another hurricane season. The grim prospect causes a skyward roll of the eyes by Katrina victims still digging out from last August.

In Pearlington, Mississippi, a rural community of 2,000 a half hour away from New Orleans where the eye of the storm hit, there is no question. They are staying, although warily.

Their resolve has been supported by an unlikely coalition: Burners Without Borders: Free thinking, grooving late nighters, younger ones variously tatooed, pierced and bleached, older ones sporting waistlines reflective of good lives. They are bonfire lovers who convinced the local fire chief that their tradition of burning was more important than the fire limitations he was trying to impose (a metal lined pit contained flames that never go out). Afte rBurners Without Borders broke camp andleft, the Fire Chief made a point of stopping by. "This is a small town, and in small towns people do a lot of talking," he said, before adding, "and there's not a single person in this town with a bad word to say about you folks, and in a small town, that's saying a whole lot."

This unique group juxtaposed easily and affectively with a rural southern community, avowedly redneck.

Burners and locals soon came to admire each other. Burners had demolition equipment and a lot of energy, are extremely resourceful and adept at making lemonade out of lemons. Their experience stems from annually building large art installations in a Nevada desert for an end-summer event called Burning Man. Burners listened to Pearlington locals who would point out others in need, especially those too proud to ask for help.

Pearlington people are used to category 3 storms. Many thought that since they survived Camille, another category 5 storm in 1969, nothing could touch them. Katrina proved them wrong. The storm's eye went right through Pearlington, with 34 to 25-foot waves covering rooftops. Remaining trees bend one way or the other, depending on whether they were twisted by the top of the storm or the undertow. Some survived only because they rode it out climbing to the top of ancient oak trees.

Some inhabitants say they will wait out the coming hurricane season before investing in homes that structurally survived Katrina. Lucky ones have insurance money to use. Others, even though they had insurance, see banks insist that any insurance money be applied toward mortgages, leaving them nothing to cover rebuilding expenses. Poor people with fragile wood structures and no flood insurance are homeless, except for FEMA trailers parked alongside the pile of debris that used to be home.

No matter where they come from, volunteers are welcome. They are also welcome to leave when they need to. One fellow Burner who lost a home in New Orleans came as part of her healing process—to work out anger at not being able to renovate until the city says her community can prove itself "viable" (there is no definition of what viable means; ergo, nothing is happening).

My motive for going was total frustration with the way my home country is being governed and values I grew up routinely subverted. Although I gladly work with Democrats Abroad and see the good things our Paris chapter does, I desperately needed to do something where I could SEE results. While cleaning a 20-square-meter patch of land is hardly a dent in the what needs to be done, I retain the satisfaction of having left a place better than when I came.

An amazing aspect is that Burners had no training. Their strength is the irrepressible spirit of making things happen. You see it every summer when a community of 40,000 converges on a playa in Nevada for 10 days, making the art event called Burning Man happen, leaving with as few ecological traces as possible.

Last summer Katrina hit while my son and I were attending. Forty-five people were identified as being from New Orleans. Collections were taken and housing found for those who had nothing to go back to. Despite that Burning Man is often mis-perceived as a pot smoking, inebriated self indulgent event, there is a strong social conscience. Effort in Louisiana and Mississippi are but examples.

Burners' evening bonfires, after dinner dancing and energetic music lured locals who loved to stop by to share a beer. Other infiltrators were from the Presbyterian camp next door. Word quickly spread that this group is FUN. Work all day, come back and dance, gather around the fire and rag. One Pearlington survivor commented ruefully, "When the Burners leave, it's going to be one more loss because of Katrina."

Burners Without Borders broke camp the end of March and shipped equipment back to Nevada. These disaster relief pioneers hope to develop an ongoing readiness to help in other instances. With global warming, no doubt, there will be ample opportunity.

The effort described here started last fall when one of the guys who had equipment used to construct art installations put a tractor and forklift on a truck and took off for Biloxi, MS, along with 4-5 other Burners to set up a camp. After rebuilding a Buddhist temple in Biloxi, they moved to Pearlington and set up camp in a parking lot leased for $1.

Burners demolished 18 condemned houses in Pearlington. Owners had been waiting months for the Army Corps of Engineers to do it. Unencumbered by legalities and governmental regulations, Burners could accomplish a lot more quickly (in defense of the Corps, it trucked away debris piled along roadways). All in all, their work totaled about one million dollars of contributed services during the four months Burners were there.

One demolition was for a gruff old man in a wheel chair who never did say thank you, but begrudgingly acknowledged that his grounds did look a lot better. Better? It was flat-out free of debris and clean, thanks to our aching backs. Others were overtly appreciative. One family threw a crawfish boil for Burners as a thank you. Locals and Burners tailgated around the boiling pot swilling beer and refilling plates every time a new batch of the 80 pounds of crawfish was ready. Each round was successively spicier than the one before. It was a great afternoon trading stories. One Burner commented, "If this is what it's like being a redneck, I'm in!"

Another project was to clear the cemetery, bringing crypts that had floated away back to the cemetery and sawing and burning tons of trees and debris. College students on spring break helped Burners and nearly freaked out at being in a cemetery. The 78-year-old caretaker looks despairingly at the cemetery now. "It was like a park before," she sighs. Although fairly free of debris now, it's less than pretty. Tombstones are off their bases, and grass is going to have to be encouraged to grow after such a dose of salt water.

Another project I worked on was a playground in Bay St. Louis. Recoverable wood climbing apparatuses and metal swings were painted in gay reds, yellows, greens, blues and purples—in stark contrast to dreary surroundings. Donated new equipment was plopped down on the grounds—nuts, bolts and pipes with no instructions. Burners figured it out and built it. I painted all day while those with body strength dug post holes and poured cement. The same afternoon the "park closed because of wet paint" sign went down, there were basketball games in progress.

Volunteers from all types of groups work together, be they religious-based or secular, college kids on spring break, retirees, whatever. As for Burners, you could tell how long someone had been there by the number of welts on arms and legs. Luckily the week I was there, cool winds prevailed. Otherwise, knats swarm (plural knatzis), and whatever meat is left over, mosquitoes attack. (More accomplishments at http://www.burnerswithoutborders.org/katrina/blog/archive/2006/03/10/katrinal-equinox/view)

My aching muscles attest to the fact that I got the desired hands-on experience. It's good to feel you can make a difference.

As for governance, it's free-for-all confusion and frustration at lack of progress. One problem begets another—racially, economically, politically.

Katrina recovery is an ongoing story. There's so much to do. Groups like ours make a small dent in the massive job that remains. Volunteers are still coming, and there is good infrastructure to accommodate them. New energy is welcome. The gulf coast needs all the help it can get. A year later

Other good pictures

4/3/06 - lquinet@earthlink.net