Caroline Catterall (lead image), CEO of Creative and PR agency Keep Left and recent survivor of Burning Man 2023 that became a mud-soaked bog following flooding from torrential rain. With her crisis comms hat firmly on, here’s Catterall’s learnings from the event…
As a newbie “Burner,” you could say it was a Baptism by fire and mud attending the 2023 event.
We’ve just emerged from the mud to read the mountain of media coverage, most of which paints apocalyptic scenes.
For sure, conditions were tough towards the end of the week. People come to Burning Man prepared for heat and dust but not rain and mud.
And for the first few magical days and nights we were inspired and awe struck at the scale, creativity, energy and beauty of what was unfolding in this makeshift “city” of 70,000 “open hearted” people around us.
When the rain first starting to fall on Friday afternoon, no one seemed particularly worried. Absolutely, no-one seemed to have an inkling that four months’ worth of rain was about to pound down on the “playa” (the Spanish word for beach the desert plain is named after).
That sinking feeling
By Saturday morning, the landscape looked very different to the start of the week. The beautiful playa had been transformed into a clay quagmire in the space of 12 hours.
Moving around the huge site became very difficult. In normal conditions, the main mode of transport is either a push bike wrapped in bright lights or a “mutant vehicle” (think Mad Max) – both became out of the question and even walking short distances was slow, hard and slippery.
Our beautiful camp Serpent Moon was located close to Centre Camp, the civic hub of Black Rock City, so my husband and I slowly made our way there on Saturday morning to see what we could learn.
After an hour of trudging through the clay ankle deep we got to Centre Camp and found the media centre. I expected it to be a hive of activity, with the comms team swinging into full crisis mode. But there was no one there except a guy handing out tequila shots for breakfast.
Eventually someone showed up and I asked what the plan was and if the story had hit the news yet, as it was going to look pretty bad. I was wondering if we should give family and friends back home a heads up. She said there was no plan at that point, and we should give family and friends a heads up if we could (internet was very limited) as the news was about to break.
Things didn’t get any clearer as the day unfolded. There was no real meaningful updates on the Black Rock City radio station other than the roads were closed and to seek shelter and conserve food and water.
There was a lot of hypothesising going on but very little facts around what would happen with the roads, with the port-a-loos and with The Man himself, which was scheduled to burn that night. It was basically a communications vacuum.
At most events, this would be unacceptable, and I’ve read articles suggesting the “Burning Man Organisation should be held fully accountable for sitting on their hands and putting 70,000 people’s lives in danger.”
I will admit that for a minute there when everything was so unclear, I applied my Aussie sensibilities to the situation and thought it was pretty average they didn’t have a better plan in place or a well-oiled comms machine swinging into action.
But Burning Man is a different kind of event build around 10 principles, two of which are Radical Self Reliance and Communal Effort.
“Burners” weren’t waiting for the organisers to swing into action and save them. In the spirit of Radical Self Reliance, they took matters into their own hands helping themselves and each other. Within the space of a few hours people worked out how to navigate the clay mud bog while doing their best to adhere to another Burning Man principle which is “Leave No Trace”.
After a number of failed attempts trying to walk through the mud in shoes covered in garbage bags, word got around that the way to approach it was socks, covered in a garbage bag, and then another pair of socks taped at the ankles to keep it all together, and the ensure the bags didn’t shred and leave MOOP (matter out of place or rubbish).
A burning desire to help
Signs started to pop up in neighbourhoods encouraging people to not pee in the toilets so they wouldn’t overflow, as no-one knew when the poo trucks would be able to access the playa again to clean them. All around the camps empty water containers started to appear with yellow liquid inside. It wasn’t glamorous but very much in the spirit of communal effort and self-reliance.
Stories emerged all over the place of people helping out other Burners who’d been on the wrong side of the playa when the rain hit and had gotten stranded, providing them with shelter, food and water until the roads were solid enough to walk on again. People in tents got invited into RVs to be more comfortable and people pooled food, booze and other resources.
Spirits remained high and the fun never truly stopped. People danced in their socks and lent into the madness blasting rain inspired playlists around the camps (think It’s Raining Men and Set Fire to the Rain, to name a few). Artists got inspired by the mud and started making sculptures out of clay.
As the ground begun to dry, we wandered back out to the playa in our socks and met a couple who had just gotten married, found parties popping up at the stranded art cars abandoned during the rain and got a chance to appreciate the art without the blazing sun and heat that usually characterises the middle of the day.
The great escape
One top tip if you’re travelling to Burning Man from Australia is to allow some wiggle room for your return flights home. We didn’t and as such, decided to take our chances and attempt exodus from the playa on Sunday evening, before the roads had “officially” reopened.
As our journey began to Gate Road on the still slippery road the volunteer staff told us we were free to leave but the roads were wet and “No one was coming to help us if we got stuck”. It was our responsibility to be radically self-reliant at this point.
On the way out, the principles of Communal Effort appeared again. RVs, including ours, were getting stuck in the slippery clay all over the place.
People stopped where they could help push vehicles. We were blessed to encounter some very pragmatic fellow escapees that showed us the best way to get a stuck RV moving again was to pack old towels under the wheels to provide traction in the slippery mud. It worked!
Burning Man is not for everyone. A few old time “Burners” told us that if you couldn’t handle the weather, you probably shouldn’t be there. And they’re probably right.
In the wash up of 2023, it’s tempting to say it all went horribly wrong and heap criticism on the organisers for not handling the comms better, but Burning Man is not Coachella.
It’s an arts and community event run by the participants – the organisers are nearly facilitators.
When the storm hit this year, it was the participants that rose to the challenge. There was no rioting, no looting, no bad behaviour. Just thousands of people banding together to manage the situation and have as much fun as possible with lots of hugs dished out along the way.
It took us months of prep and endless lists to be ready to attend Burning Man, but it was totally worth it. Those few days before the rain hit will live large in our memories as some of the most fun and enriching moments of our lives. And even after the rain hit, it was still bloody memorable.
I’m hoping to practice some more radical self-reliance in my everyday life. It’s not such a bad thing to be able to stand on your own two feet and deal with a bit of hardship, with a smile still on your dial. We now have unfinished business with the event as we didn’t get to see the Man burn, so will be back.
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