From here to Katrina

Hit hard by the storm and abandoned by their government, some Gulf Coast residents have found themselves relying on a few unlikely saviors — Bay Area burners.

By Steven T. Jones

› steve@sfbg.com

Pearlington, Miss. It's hard to imagine the devastation until you see it. It's even harder to fathom why so much wreckage remains almost six months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the richest and most powerful country on Earth, laying to waste hundreds of thousands of homes between Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans, La.

In the path of Katrina's eye, buildings were ripped apart or crushed by trees, boats, or other houses. The homes that still stand are now freckled with black mold and awaiting demolition. The southern Mississippi coastline was wiped clean by the 30-foot storm surge, except for the ghostly, darkened hull of a pirate ship built as a casino. The New Orleans levee breaches knocked out almost all of the small homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The failures of the government to prevent this disaster or respond effectively — both during the storm and since then — are a national shame. The corruption and incompetence — some would even say greed and racism — that have hampered efforts to plan for the return of residents to poor urban neighborhoods is a tragedy that is still unfolding.

But there's another story here on the Gulf Coast, a more hopeful story. It's a story of people from around the country — including many from the San Francisco Bay Area — who have descended on the region, placing their lives on hold so they can help their fellow humans dig out of the muck and rebuild.

In New Orleans, community organizers and social justice advocates with roots in the Bay Area came together to form Common Ground, which operates a soup kitchen, a medical clinic, and a political and legal advocacy network. Emergency Communities forms a similar structure in St. Bernard Parish, serving 1,400 meals a day from its Made with Love Café domes.

Throughout the Gulf Coast, religious groups from around the country — from Salvation Army to Islamic Relief to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance — have settled into communities big and small, setting up in tent cities to rebuild church halls, distribute relief items, or lend a hand with the work. Other residents turn to the Red Cross, which distributes food and supplies, or to the subcontractors of the subcontractors actually doing work on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers, workers who will haul away their rubble if residents can get it to the street.

Many of these groups have a presence in Pearlington, a small community along the Pearl River, which divides Louisiana from Mississippi, a town the eye of Katrina passed over on Aug. 29, leaving only five of its roughly 2,000 buildings repairable.

But there's another organization in town, one that's a lot less conventional — and in many ways, a lot more effective.

BURNERS WITHOUT BORDERS

Burning Man, the giant art festival in the Nevada desert, has a reputation in some quarters as a self-indulgent freak fest. And for a lot of the people who make the trip, it's mostly a party. But behind the scenes, the event is a serious operation: Someone has to build from scratch and then take down what amounts to a medium-size city every year.

So Burning Man has spawned a large network of resourceful people with all manner of survival, construction, and cleanup skills — and when Katrina hit, during last year's festival, some people decided to put their well-honed community-building skills to work on the Gulf Coast.

Thus Theme Camp Katrina, also known as Burners Without Borders, was born, an informal disaster relief crew that has been working out of encampments on the Gulf Coast since the first week of September, consisting of up to a couple dozen people at any one time and cycling more than 100 people through since it started.

Many took vacation time to come. Among those who have stayed for longer stints, most were at transition periods in their lives — between jobs or just getting out of romantic relationships — or the work caused them to create a transition. It seems easy to linger here. There's no rent or other real living costs, and the three square meals a day from a well-stocked kitchen, made by a fantastic cook known as Spoon, are better than most people eat at home.

After spending four months in Biloxi — distributing supplies, doing home demolition and cleanup, and rebuilding a Buddhist temple — the group moved to Pearlington in early January, setting up camp where the post office had been before it was destroyed by Katrina, its pieces strewn among the trees and other debris in an adjacent bayou forest.

"We're the only heavy-equipment operator out here," said Richard Scott, 50, who works for Burning Man using cranes and other equipment in support of artists. He's been on the Gulf Coast since right after the hurricane, and managed to get Daewoo to donate an excavator — a massive, dinosaurlike piece of equipment capable of ripping apart a house — and a large front-loader tractor, each vehicle weighing 28,000 pounds.

The donations joined the large trailer and smaller Kubota front-loader that Matt Linsday (who spearheaded the effort), his father, Phil Linsday, and other family members drove down from their construction business in Eugene, Ore., the first week in September. That was what started the influx of burners to the Gulf Coast, people ranging from low-skilled grunts to experienced carpenters, like Philip Zeitgold, a former San Francisco resident, and Mark Grieve, the San Rafael resident who oversees the construction of the temple at Burning Man.

"It became a Burning Man thing, but it didn't really start out that way," Scott said. "People came down here because they had a connection."

And once they came, many simply stayed. Zeitgold planned to be here for a week but found the work so fulfilling that he's stayed for two months and intends to remain until the group breaks camp April 1. Many share that story, including San Francisco resident Carmen Mauk, who came in late December and just can't leave. "This hurricane could have rolled right through here yesterday," Mauk said as she surveyed the debris around Pearlington. "That's where they're at."

They work all day, usually every day except Sunday, in white neighborhoods and black, on soggy little shacks and a once exquisite Frank Lloyd Wright house, picking up debris by hand or doing skilled specialty work, and never taking money from the locals for their efforts. And all the while, they add a lively splash of color to this devastated community, with their tattoos and piercings, brightly colored cruiser bikes, and art projects they burn in a campfire that never seems to go out.

To say they've been welcomed here is an understatement, particularly given what Pearlington residents have been through.

STORM STORIES

Every project the crew has taken on comes with a story, and many of those stories involve the stately, gnarled oak trees that filled the region, perches that saved most of those who stayed to ride out the storm.

One photo from a surveillance camera conveyed the power of what hit Pearlington: It showed a surging wave of seawater as high as the 40-foot oak trees, a massive shrimp boat just a speck in the wave, the sea in the background just as high. Once it washed through town, the entire region was under more than 10 feet of water most of the day.

Samuel Burton and his 28-year-old granddaughter, Freda, came into the camp my first day there to ask for help removing two large pecan trees that had fallen in their yard. A couple of us went to check it out, driving into an African American neighborhood with a massive oak tree at its center.

"I was in that house there, and I ended up in that tree," Freda Burton told me.

I hadn't yet grown accustomed to the stories of people escaping from floodwater in the trees, so her story seemed almost unbelievable. The floodwaters came in the morning, when she was lounging around the house with her aunt and pregnant sister wearing just a T-shirt and boxer shorts. They all ran outside to try to get to high ground, but the water was rising too fast. Burton couldn't swim, so she desperately clung to a car, then some vines that hung from the oak tree. Eventually, the rising water allowed the three of them to make it up into the tree's branches, where they sat shivering for the next 12 hours. Samuel Burton, holding his dog, and a nephew were in a smaller tree nearby.

"I sat in the tree and watched my house go underwater," she said.

The next job was over at Santa Looter's, a nickname we'd given to a house owned by a guy named Buzzy, who'd placed a sign next to the Santa Claus figure in his front yard that read, "Keep out or all you'll get for Christmas is SHOT!"

The two houses on the property were tear-downs, the floors full of dried mud cracked into jigsaw puzzle pieces, the walls pocked with black mold. To enter the house and hope to avoid the dreaded "Katrina cough," one had to wear a respirator or a mold mask.

Buzzy and his wife had evacuated before the storm, but his son and daughter-in-law had stayed behind and ended up in an oak tree. Within a couple of hours, our crew of a half dozen had transferred a yard full of smelly debris into a pile by the street, and Buzzy dropped his good-ole-boy demeanor and fumbled for the words to properly express his gratitude, still seeming to not understand why all these strangers had helped him for free.

Across the street, the excavator was parked in front of Matthew Abel's large, white house, his demolition permit number and "Tear Me Down" written in red on the walls. Richard Scott would attack his house in the morning, but that night Abel came by the campfire to have a few beers and share his story.

"I was sitting in my front room getting drunk, watching WLOX on TV," Abel said. He grew up in New Orleans before coming to Pearlington, and he'd heard many hurricane warnings, none of which ever amounted to much. "But this time, it happened, man."

He watched the rising water through a window and thought about making a break for it in his car until an oak tree fell across his driveway and blocked him in. Then the water started to rise through his floorboards, and he dove to save his cat: "I just wanted to make sure Nunu was all right."

Abel put Nunu in a cat box and set it on his mattress, which was now floating. "It's weird to see everything you own floating," he said. The water level continued to rise, so Abel bailed out of the house and climbed an oak tree. That night, once the water level had fallen, he retrieved Nunu and saw that the waterline had come within a couple feet of his ceiling.

WRIGHT HOUSE TOUR

After dealing with Buzzy's mucky mess, the group pedaled its bicycles over to a slightly more upscale part of town, Belle Isles, where many of the houses had private fishing boat docks along a man-made canal that paralleled the Pearl River, the bridge to Louisiana looming on the horizon.

It was a field trip to investigate the Frank Lloyd Wright house that had partially collapsed and been buried under a pile of debris. The owners, Billy and Sharon Graham, had contacted Scott in tears and asked him to tear it down. It had been their dream house, and they couldn't even bear to deal with its wrecked remains. Upon inspection, it seemed a treasure trove to Burners Without Borders.

Built almost entirely of cedar and brick, with Wright's signature double-cantilever design roof extending to the ground, it had clearly been a magnificent house. Indeed, much of it was still solid, except for the fact that the waterside columns had given way and collapsed half the roof onto the living room. That, and the water damage.

The more striking impact of Katrina here was the deep pile of wood and debris between the house and the water, the remains of destroyed homes, piers, and other structures from who knows where. Here was a massive pile of boards, many of them solid, usable wood — everything from 2-by-4s to 2-by-10 planks — from which the carpenters in the group could help other Katrina victims rebuild. After all, the burners were working for free, the camp surviving almost entirely on donations from other burners and outside groups. Plus, there was enough scrap wood to keep the campfire burning for weeks.

In the morning, Scott used the excavator to single-handedly tear down Abel's house — and his oak tree perch — before lunchtime. Before that, he made an announcement. After demolishing dozens of homes — sometimes two a day, unleashing their mold spores in the process — and spending a solid five months on this devastated coastline, he needed a change.

"I'm getting really tired of wrecking houses. I want to build something. I need to leave something other than empty lots," he told the group during the Friday morning meeting, proposing that the group focus much of its energy on rebuilding the house of Tony Vegeletta, a 71-year-old man who'd lost everything in the storm and had been one of the first Pearlington locals to befriend the group.

Some resisted. "If we were only building, I'd feel like we weren't contributing as much," said Lisa Benham, a volunteer from the South Bay who had arrived Jan. 7.

"Every day, we have three or four people ask for help," Scott said, noting that the workload was endless and it was beginning to take its toll on his health, mental and physical, a statement his look and tone seemed to validate.

"I want to make my last month here as enjoyable as possible. I've done my commitment," he said. "We all put our own expectations on ourselves."

BEADS, DEEDS AND SEEDS

It had been a big workweek, so on Saturday, Feb. 11, Mauk, Benham, and Jim Jordan from Seattle decided to join me for a tour of New Orleans, visiting the major aid groups and seeing the devastation before watching the very first of the season's Mardi Gras parades, Krewe du Vieux, in the French Quarter.

At the Emergency Communities site, I met Luke Taylor, a student from a Sebastopol high school whose senior trip had been moved from Mexico to New Orleans so the students could help with the relief effort. He said it had been an eye-opening experience.

"Nobody expected to arrive here and have it look like a third world country," Taylor said. "We really feel good being here, and we wish we could stay."

It was a common sentiment among volunteers on the Gulf Coast. It's hard work in a sometimes emotionally jarring setting, but intensely satisfying. The volunteers at Common Ground — which operates out of the only restored and repainted house in the Lower Ninth Ward, among other locations in the city — said the same thing.

"Common Ground has been the great leap forward for the global justice movement," Bay Area activist James Tracy, an early volunteer for the group, told me. "You had all these different factions of the US left actually working well together for a change."

Former Black Panthers (including Common Ground founder Malik Rahim), labor leaders, community organizers, tenants rights activists, doctors from the Bay Area Radical Health Collective, antiwar protestors — they came together to do physical work on behalf of the displaced poor of New Orleans.

"It was on the ground, gutting houses. Every morning, Common Ground would marshal volunteers to help residents try to salvage their houses," Tracy said. "We literally saved people thousands of dollars just by helping them out for a day."

Over at the Parkway Partners' Sun Don Organic Community Garden, we ran into noted San Francisco writer and activist Starhawk on her way to teach a class on bioremediation, which involves introducing red wiggler worms into the soil as a way of breaking down the toxins left by the floodwaters.

"It's the kind of work that the EPA should be doing but isn't," Starhawk told us, noting that New Orleans is a good place to test this approach to cleansing the soil. "Then we want to go home and bioremediate San Francisco."

Most of the city was abandoned; much of it was destroyed or mildewing, the most active signs of life being the new signs stuck to posts or displayed in yards: "We buy damaged houses," "for sale by owner," and advertisements for house-gutting and mold-removal services.

But the worst was the Lower Ninth Ward, a poor, predominantly African American neighborhood that had taken the most direct hit from the levee break — from the water, the debris, and a block-long steel barge that crushed houses and people and was still sitting right where it came to rest. And if the devastation wasn't bad enough, a steady stream of tourists poured through taking pictures, the most life we'd seen in New Orleans all day.

I almost couldn't bear to return to this neighborhood in the late afternoon, when local residents would be getting out of a community meeting Common Ground had called. But then I met Deborah Harris. She had lived there half her life, 26 years, and when I asked if her house was still standing, she replied with a sassy, "That's about all it's doing."

Although people in Pearlington all seem to want their damaged houses torn down, in New Orleans there's a different sentiment. Many seem to feel that once their dwellings are gone, the residents will be displaced.

Not Harris. "I'm going to rebuild," she said. "I'm going to start small and build up."

It won't be easy. Her property and those of her neighbors had just been assessed at a ridiculously low $750. And even though she'd applied for both demolition permits and a FEMA trailer in early October, her applications were still pending. She believed New Orleans officials were trying to keep poor residents out so the prime riverside real estate of the Lower Ninth Ward could be turned into casinos and a golf course. Her reasoning rang true after my stay in southern Mississippi, where just about every standing house had its demolition permit number written on the side and a trailer in the yard.

"Everyone wants to make this a black or white issue, but it's a human issue," Harris said. "I'm 51 years old, how the hell am I going to start over again?"

The answer: She's not. Harris said she's going to stay in her community, on her property, no matter what designs corrupt New Orleans officials have on her neighborhood. "If I have the only tent that's in the yard, I'm going to be here, and I dare them to try to get me out."

This same resilient, defiant spirit was on display during the Krewe du Vieux parade that evening in the French Quarter — a part of New Orleans that didn't flood and seemed completely intact. Floats and paraders mocked FEMA and the whole range of government entities, dressed in the blue tarps that are ubiquitous on Gulf Coast rooftops, and appealed for a reversal of the Louisiana Purchase with the slogan "Buy us back, Chirac."

Along with the beads and other traditional throws to the large crowd, Krewe du Vieux handed out little life preservers with the slogan "C'est Levee." Yet there was one parader who subtly offered the grim reminder not to let the grand distraction of Mardi Gras interfere with the work at hand.

"Seeds and deeds, not beads," he said solemnly as he walked the route. "Seeds and deeds, not beads."

BILOXI'S BUDDHISTS

No single deed performed by Burners Without Borders was more striking than its reconstruction of the Chau Van Duc Buddhist Temple in Biloxi. The Vietnamese American residents of this fishing village had spent more than 10 years raising money for the temple and 4 years on its construction — holding its grand-opening ceremony Aug. 28, the day before Katrina, which severely damaged the temple and surrounding village.

When the Linsday family, the construction workers from Oregon, arrived with their equipment, they set up camp in the temple's parking lots, helping to run what became an important disaster relief center for Biloxi. Many of the burners who followed came from the Temple Crew, a perfect match for the temple reconstruction efforts that began almost immediately and was completed by Christmas.

Other groups helped. In fact, at one point Islamic Relief asked for supplies from the Mormon Church in Utah, which were delivered through the Salvation Army to the burners, who used them to help the Buddhists. But when we had tea in the temple — now a stunningly beautiful sanctuary — with a monk named Ti, he credited the burners with the temple's restoration.

I was taken on a tour of the group's former stomping grounds, and much of the Gulf Coast, by Tom Price, who more than anyone else was responsible for the transformation of Camp Linsday into Burners Without Borders, using the Burning Man networks and resources to increase the effort's longevity, volunteer base, and impact.

Price, a former Washington, DC, lobbyist for environmental groups, is a contract employee for Burning Man, serving as the group's liaison to political and law enforcement officials.

Price pointed out the Imperial Palace casino where FEMA workers stayed in Biloxi. "They were incredibly thoughtless, arrogant people living just blocks away from people who had lost everything," he said.

The casinos figured prominently in the camp's decision to leave. They were among the first businesses to reopen in Biloxi, creating a steady stream of traffic through devastated communities — an unsettling situation compounded by the fact that many poor renters were being served with eviction notices, the landlords preferring to sell their now-cleared land to build even more casinos.

"Yeah," Price said, momentarily lost in memories of those days, "it was time to go."

So they toured the devastated region, talked to other relief groups, sized up where they could do the most good, and finally settled on Pearlington, where local government didn't exist and federal agencies and their contractors hadn't even yet arrived to deal with the mess.

REBUILDING

As we chain-sawed and hauled away the Burtons' fallen pecan trees, parishioners from the adjacent First Baptist Church were gathering for lunch in a new hall that had been built for them by a visiting church group from Florida. It was one of the first new buildings in Pearlington, having hosted its first service just days earlier, and they invited us in for lunch.

Jacqueline Bradley and Johnnie Robinson, who rode out the hurricane in nearby Stennis Space Center, talked about how the storm aftermath has been hard to cope with, although they take hope from the outsiders who have come to help.

"It's the best and the worst. My house went underwater, and it's as tall as this," Bradley, 51, told me, gesturing to her new church hall. Robinson, 60, added, "We're just thankful for all that's been done for us."

It's understandable why Scott wanted to leave behind something other than empty lots, something he was still off to create more of on Monday morning. "I got a house I have to demo today for a tugboat captain, and it's a wet, stinky mess," he said.

As the only one who could operate the excavator, he was having a hard time disengaging from the destruction. But he'd sown his seeds: Mark Grieve arrived on Sunday with a truck full of carpentry tools and others were on the way. "I throw fishing lines out there with a little bit of bait, and they come," Scott said with a sly grin.

"My friends have come and told me about it," Grieve told me, explaining his intention to work on Tony Vegeletta's house during his planned week-long visit. "I'm going to get his house started, give him a little hope."

While Scott tore down the tugboat captain's stinky house, some of us pulled four large trailers full of good boards out of the Wright house, others used crow bars to rid the boards of nails, and others assisted Grieve as the frame of the new house started to take shape.

My week there was drawing to an end, and I had that same impulse to just stay, to keep plugging away at this unending task, that has grabbed so many.

In my last 24 hours, I'd met Bill Schierholz, 67, alone and disabled and reluctant to appeal for assistance; I'd listened to the Vietnamese owner of the only gas station and store in town ask for the help he needed to reopen; I'd watched Scott replace a crypt that had floated away from the cemetery.

And as I watched the sun drop into the Pearl River for my last time, on our way back from picking up debris in Schierholz's yard, Price took me to the marshy banks of the river on the southernmost section. There, we saw more than a football field's worth of wood and debris, who knows how deep, who knows how many houses worth, who knows how many people-hours it would take to deal with.

He surveyed the scene and smiled. "Where do you even begin?" *

www.burnerswithoutborders.org

www.commongroundrelief.org