Burning Man, meet Drowning Man

Silicon Valley's freak-out meets Katrina, with a bump

The writer had found an elusive internet connection, and reaching beyond exhaustion was finding words to record the madness around him:

"We are operating on something beyond tired, beyond care, beyond recognition," he wrote. "You just keep going, because you have no choice."

New Orleans? No, Burning Man.

The writer was describing America's greatest party, although word only seeped through about the disaster unfolding in America's greatest party city, 2,000 miles away.

The Burning Man festival is a survival experience by design, not force majeure. Each year around 30,000 throng to a Nevada salt desert for a week, bringing their own food and water with them to create "Black Rock City", and endeavoring to leave no trace behind them. It's a celebration of creativity, community and endurance that for many in Silicon Valley is the highlight of the year - around two thirds of Burners are from the San Francisco Bay Area. By no means the largest festival in the world, Burning Man is still a truly astonishing visual spectacle, and the intensity of the experience leads Burners to host "decompression parties" on touchdown.

This year, however, the decompression shock has been particularly severe.

Burning Man Art

Cell phones don't work out on the Nevada playa, and only a handful of attendees use the Wi-Fi hotspot that's set up for the media. The nearest hamlet is 11 miles away. So the news that the US had been hit by a catastrophe which may dwarf 9/11 trickled through the temporary city fitfully.

By Thursday, Disaster Relief buckets were collecting money in Center Camp - BRC's nominal hub and the one area where money can be exchanged (for coffee, cold drinks, or ice). But canny Burners shun Center Camp, with its commercial frenzy, and its hippie-tinged, NPR-style events program, so most of those who do drop by use it as no more than a meeting point. As the catastrophe unfolded, many attendees were barely aware of the scale crisis and many more - your reporter included - were to be unaware of the extent of human suffering - which prompted the poorest countries in the world such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh to pledge aid to the USA - it until leaving the camp this week.

Back to the SF Chronicle's John Curley, who had been pressed into blogging duty:

"Just when you think you just won't be able to make it through the afternoon, that this one is just too long and hot and tiring and you don't want to see another installation and you're sick of being on this damn bike and you just want to sit some place cool and green, you find salvation in the form of a snow cone. A blessed soul has set up a cart in the middle of the playa, in the far reaches out near the perimeter fence, and he's shaving a block of ice and putting a mound of the blessed coolness in a small plastic cone, and he's pouring fresh concoction of raspberry/lemon syrup on it. Ohhhh, and now he's putting a little vodka on as a finish."

Ohhhh, Burning Man. The New Orleans disaster relief buckets dotted around the Festival remained depressingly ignored. Meanwhile, a collection of the wealthiest people in the world couldn't do enough ... for each other.

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