By Naomi Graychase
May 19, 2006
When Burners Without Borders went to Mississippi to help with post-Katrina rebuilding, communication was tough until Kyocera’s mobile router came to the rescue.
At the exact moment when Hurricane Katrina was hurtling toward the Gulf Coast, nearly 40,000 artists and adventurers were converging on an ancient lakebed in the Black Rock Desert. On August 29, 2005, as the Class 3 storm began its course of destruction, the celebrants at Burning Man began their week of creation.
The hurricane would wipe out cities and towns, leaving in its wake a trail of mangled homes, flooded forests and great expanses of debris. The burners would create from nothing a fully-functioning city, and when they were done, they would tear it down, leaving no trace behind.
For those who have not lived through a disaster as catastrophic as Katrina, it is not possible to know what it was like. For those who have not reveled in the freedom of Burning Man, it is said to be impossible to comprehend.“Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind,” say organizers, via the official Web site.
The most basic way to conceptualize the event is to understand it as a gigantic, spontaneous, experimental community. Burners are adept at creating homes where there were none, at rapidly forging meaningful relationships with strangers, and at understanding how it is that a group of people can work together to build entire towns — and to clean up after them.
The day before the storm hit — the day before Burning Man began — no one in Biloxi, Mississipi could possibly have imagined that in a matter of days, a handful of people about to party in the desert would show up with the sole purpose of helping them rebuild their lives.
Armed with a unique community-minded survivalist skill set, big hearts, and the ability to thrive almost anywhere, groups and individuals departed from Burning Man and went straight into the heart of the land decimated by Katrina.
Calling themselves Burners Without Borders, the grassroots relief team rolled into Biloxi, where volunteers spent several months rebuilding a Vietnamese temple. From there, they moved on to the place where Katrina’s Gulf Coast rampage began.
“The town of Pearlington, Mississippi is where Katrina made landfall. It took the brunt of the storm more than any other place. It had the greatest need,” says Tom Price, one of Burners Without Borders’ chief organizers. “It also had no services of any kind. We were able to build water and plumbing and electrical systems.”
The group set up camp in a swamp 15 miles from the nearest store, and immediately got to work.
“No two days were alike,” says Price. “Every day, we’d pick someone else to help whose life had been ruined. We would pick up as many of the broken pieces as possible.”
At one point, the group was even visited by a representative from Doctors Without Borders, who saw the camp as an exemplary model of how to function in a disaster area.
Two of the project’s most crucial elements — funding and information sharing — depended upon having reliable Internet access, but for a transient group of people living in makeshift shelters in a town with no infrastructure, getting Internet access was tough.
In March, however, six months after the storm, the situation looked as though it might dramatically improve. Price heard from a friend that Kyocera Wireless had launched its KR1 Mobile Router ($299), which enables users to set up a Wi-Fi LAN using an EV-DO 3G connection for backhaul to the Internet.
“I tried to buy one the day they went on sale,” says Price. “And it was already sold out. So I called to beg to be bumped to the top of the waiting list. But when they heard what our need was, they immediately overnighted one.”
“When we first announced the KR1 router,” says John Chier, the company’s Director of Corporate Communications, “Tom Price indicated that they had been without Internet access for some time because of the lack of infrastructure. At the time, they had one PC card that they were sharing among about 20 people in their group. When they saw the announcement of the KR1 mobile router, it was an no-brainer. We responded right away.”
Seven months after leaving the desert to offer help in Mississippi, this band of Burners without Borders headed home.
“We’ve finished our project,” says Price. “But the KR1 is going in the initial deployment box with our chainsaw, our tools, our generators. I feel like a missionary for these things. If you’re going to work in an unstable environment, this about as close to plug-and-play connectivity as you can get. Quite simply, without the KR1 router, we would have folded up our tents and left months before we did. Communication was absolutely mission-critical so we could get the story out. Talking about the hurricane is one thing. Showing someone a picture is something different. Being able to create a hotspot in a disaster zone literally in the middle of a swamp? It was mission-critical. It was equally important as our bulldozers.”