'Burn on the Bayou' showcases Burning Man participants' post-Katrina relief efforts

The first-ever Burning Man-funded documentary shows how hundreds of attendees of the countercultural arts festival took it upon themselves to head to the Gulf Coast to help out after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Members of Burners without Borders used detritus they found in the small Mississippi town to fashion its first-ever 'Welcome to Pearlington' sign. Burners without Borders spent more than seven months living and working in the battered Gulf Coast region, helping the communities of Biloxi and Pearlington clean up and rebuild after they were devastated by 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Tom Price

Until a few months after Hurricane Katrina flattened it, the little Mississippi hamlet of Pearlington had never been graced with a nice, big welcome sign.

But that was before, as Pearlington was being completely ignored by every official relief agency in the Gulf region, a bunch of strangers, all of them Burning Man attendees who had formed a group called Burners without Borders, suddenly descended to help.

This was no ragtag group of 10 or 20 hopeless do-gooders showing up without a plan. This was more than 150 people, toting heavy equipment, supplies of food and water, years of experience surviving and thriving in harsh, off-the-grid environments, and fresh from many months of hard-core cleanup of the ravaged coastal city of Biloxi.

This is the story of Burn on the Bayou, a new documentary produced by Burning Man, about the hundreds of self-organizing veterans of the annual countercultural arts festival, who, after hearing about the disaster in the Gulf--which happened during the festival--dropped everything, loaded up whatever trucks, RVs, campers and other vehicles they could find and drove several thousand miles to help.

While the rest of the world's attention was focused on the disaster in New Orleans, the Burning Man group decided to head towards Biloxi, which had been hit just as hard. There, the volunteers arrived and quickly set to work helping locals deal with the aftermath of one of the worst natural catastrophes in U.S. history.

This documentary is the first film project Burning Man has funded. For years, filmmakers have created a wide range of work about the festival and many of its associated elements, but this was the first time organizers felt like there was a story worth investing in itself.

"It's a fantastic story that illustrates how the ethics and values of what you learn from Burning Man can be turned outwards towards life outside the event," Marian Goodell, Burning Man's director of communications, told me. "The natural act of giving that's so easy and prevalent and natural at Burning Man just flowed to Mississippi."

I'd been aware of Burners without Borders for some time, and had written previously about some of its innovative efforts.

But as a 10-time Burning Man attendee myself, one of the things I appreciated most about Burn on the Bayou was that it tackles head-on the meme spread by many critics of Burning Man that its self-absorbed participants are interested only in having a blow-out party in the desert and couldn't care less about anyone else.

In fact, the film informs us, more than 2,000 Burning Man participants helped out in some way in the Gulf Coast region and Burners, as they're known, donated more than $100,000 to relief efforts.

To be sure, with any event that draws more than 40,000 people, there are some for whom that assessment is accurate. But the Burning Man community has long had countless members who work hard to make a difference in the real world. Whether that happens by putting up public art in cities or by raising money for various needy causes, or by donating time and manpower to help small low-income communities solve energy problems, Burners have long been giving back.

But nothing demonstrates that like what Burners without Borders did in 2005 and 2006.

Burn on the Bayou is a strong film that successfully shows how a large group of people took it upon themselves to run to help communities that were in no position to help themselves.

One of the things that's so poignant about the documentary is that it demonstrates just how disorganized the official relief efforts in the Gulf were after Katrina. So when the Burners arrived in Biloxi, they found a situation where self-starters were the only ones capable of making any kind of headway in making a dent in the unfathomable destruction that the hurricane left behind.

But self-starters are exactly who Burners without Borders are. These are people skilled in creating functional and comfortable civilization in barren and harsh desert conditions and so were able to bring that experience to bear in a city whose residents were left stranded and shaken and without much measurable assistance from the various government agencies in the region.

One of the biggest contributions Burners without Borders had to make was industrial equipment. One manufacturer donated this heavy loader to the group, allowing it to do work in hours that previously was taking volunteers days to do. Burn on the Bayou

Sadly, much of the work Burners without Borders took on was tearing down rather than building. That's because the hurricane and the giant storm surges that battered Biloxi destroyed most of what was in the way. And before a community can begin to rebuild, it must first remove what was destroyed.

For big parts of Biloxi, however, that meant trying to rip down shattered houses with small equipment or by hand, painstaking work that takes incredible amounts of time.

So when word got out about what Burners without Borders was doing in Biloxi, one manufacturer of heavy industrial equipment donated a brand-new heavy loader to the group.

The result? The ability, showcased in scene after scene, to rip down a condemned building in hours rather than days.

These scenes are heart-wrenching because as is pointed out, the machinery allowed group members to reduce 30 years of someone's belongings to a pile of rubble in mere minutes. It surely must be a horrible thing to have to do, yet it's what was absolutely necessary at the time.

The film, however, balances destruction against re-birth, in the tale of the Biloxi Vietnamese Buddhist community's new temple.

In Biloxi, Miss., members of Burners without Borders set up a small tent city outside a Vietnamese Buddhist temple they helped repair and rebuild after it was flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. After years of construction, the temple was dedicated the same day Katrina slammed into Biloxi. Burners without Borders set up their home and headquarters inside the temple. Burn on the Bayou

For years, we discover, the community had put money together to build a new temple. Finally, in August 2005, it was ready. And on Monday, August 29 of that year, it was dedicated. That was the same day Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

Though the temple was not destroyed, rising water levels forced temple members to seek refuge in the building's attic, and had the water gone even three feet higher, most would have perished.

Arriving in Biloxi and looking for a home, meanwhile, the Burners without Borders group found the Vietnamese community and a marriage was born.

On the one hand, Burners without Borders spent much of the next few months helping to rebuild the temple, and on the other, they set up their headquarters there.

The film is interspersed with interviews with Burners without Borders volunteers and Mississippi residents talking about the interactions between the two constituencies. Over and over again, we hear residents talking with a fair bit of awe and admiration about how appreciative they are for the unexpected help--and how life-changing being involved in the relief efforts was to the volunteers who had traveled so far to get involved.

After several months in Biloxi, it was time for the group to move on, for reasons that are not entirely spelled out in the film. But what is clear is that the Burners without Borders members were not ready to leave the Gulf Coast. They wanted another place to help out.

Where they went was Pearlington, a town of less than 2,000 residents a short distance northeast of New Orleans.

The Burners without Borders camp in Pearlington, Miss. Tom Price

As Kim Jones, a Pearlington resident put it, "The day after the storm, there wasn't a house in this town that was inhabitable. Nothing. Nowhere."

So for the Burners without Borders group, working in Pearlington was largely about helping raze the endless numbers of destroyed buildings, even if the group wasn't welcomed with open arms at first.

"Any small town is going to have an inherent suspicion of any large outside group that just moves themselves in," said volunteer Lisa Benham. "And I think those suspicions stayed until we rolled out the big equipment and started doing what we do, which is to just rip through large projects very quickly, for free."

One project they took on was rebuilding one resident's house, from scratch. Another was showing the locals that even amidst detritus spread as far as the eye could see, art was possible.

That was demonstrated by the penchant group members developed for taking discarded wood and other materials from destroyed buildings and making art pieces that they then burned each night after work.

After seven months in the Gulf, the group finally decided to leave. But before they did, they had a final, good-bye party.

In 'Burn on the Bayou,' we see how members of Burners without Borders helped bring a measure of hope to residents of Biloxi, Miss., who saw their town nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The group's volunteers helped the community with tearing down condemned houses and by raising spirits with things like Christmas gatherings. Burn on the Bayou

More than 150 of the 600 or so people still in town showed up, recalled Tom Price, one of the Burners without Borders volunteers, and a producer of the film, remembered. And in footage from the party, we see Pearlington residents looking on as Burners without Borders members burn their art and spin fire, two regular activities at Burning Man.

"It was pretty wild," Pearlington resident Larry Randall says in the film. "I never seen nothing like that before. I'd hear about it...It was fantastic."

One other thing the Pearlington residents seem to have especially appreciated was the new "Welcome to Pearlington" sign put up by Burners without Borders.

It was "just unreal that they took pure junk and made such a beautiful thing out of it," said Jones. "Everytime I go by it, I just hope it's there forever."

The film ends with a scene of a convoy of RVs and other vehicles rolling out of Pearlington, with those inside presumably heading back to their regular lives. It's a touching moment.

But what stays with me, and certainly with many members of Burners without Borders themselves, is that once you take part in something like this, you can't ever again think about the world the way you did before.

"If any of those guys from the group I was working with called me up," said Karine Wilson at the end of the film, "and said, 'Karine, we need you,' I'd say, 'Okay, when and where, and what tools should I bring?'"