Union Beach, New Jersey, like much of the state, is a mess thanks to Superstorm Sandy. Its residents who are sticking it out and hoping to rebuild have to figure out a way to clear their lots of debris and condemned structures. Regular relief groups don’t provide aid for this kind of work, and contractors aren’t going to cut a break for flood victims. It has left an altruistic void, one that has been filled by a bunch of people who are stereotypically known for heading out every year to the middle of a desert in Nevada to do a bunch of drugs, dress up like gay aliens, and light a bunch of shit on fire.
Yes, a small group of Burning Man enthusiasts have formed what appears to be an extremely efficient charitable organization that helps people in ways more bureaucratic organizations can’t.
Just because the typical view of Burners is that they're computer programmers who fantasize all year about wearing furry purple pants while tripping on 2CT7 and convulsing to dubstep, it doesn’t mean they don’t know their way around a construction site. These same people spend months and even years constructing elaborate psychedelic mutant robo-vehicles atop of which they party for a week like the world is going to end. And they really love demolition. “Going to Burning Man is like boot camp for disaster relief,” said Tom Price, one of several cofounders. "Dealing with food, water, and shelter in a harsh environment and building a community from scratch isn't a challenge, it's what we do for vacation."
In 2005 a spontaneous campaign to help victims of Katrina formed as soon as news of the devastation broke at the festival. In two days, $42,000 was raised, a convoy was coordinated, and people drove down to Louisiana and Mississippi to distribute supplies and help however they could. They became known as Burners Without Borders.
BWB has gone on to sponsor relief projects in Haiti, South Africa, Peru, Japan, and the US. They have also supported scores of endeavors around the world like public-space cleanups, backpack programs for the homeless, and even an alternative-currency project in Kenya.
In New Jersey, BWB is providing “about $1.5 million worth of work,” according to Richard Scott, another cofounder. So far, about half of the 160 houses slated for removal have been leveled and hauled away, town officials are being assisted through a contentious permitting process, and beach cleanups are being organized with other volunteer groups, all on a shoestring budget of under $30,000.
“Although we don’t have the capacity of the Red Cross, we end up making a very large impact on people’s lives with very little money,” said BWB director Carmen Mauk. There’s no denying that the group is a hardworking bunch that is more flexible than unwieldy organizations like the Red Cross, which has taken in $170 million since the storm but has come up with a somewhat embarrassing response, consisting of blankets, week-old hot dogs, and disgruntled volunteers.
“Big agencies are prescribed in what they can and can’t do,” said Tom, “but we don’t have those preconditions. We do whatever needs doing.”
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