After the annual Burning Man festival was impacted by heavy rains causing a quagmire of sticky mud and calls for attendees to shelter in place over the weekend, a mass exodus finally ensued on Monday afternoon.
But with more than 70,000 people stranded at one point, concern began to grow with reports of a death and rumors of spreading disease, to the point that President Biden was made aware of the situation. And as news quickly made the rounds on social media, there were plenty of stories to tell and reactions to go with them. So here is a breakdown of everything that went down at this year’s Burning Man.
How it started
The event, which attracts thousands to the desert in northwest Nevada to build a temporary, self-sufficient and art-themed community called Black Rock City, opened on Aug. 27, with highly coveted tickets starting at $575. It was scheduled to wrap up Sept. 4, Labor Day.
With plenty of warning beforehand, rain began to fall on Friday morning and would add up to nearly an inch by Saturday morning. While that may not sound like much to some, in a geographic region that’s much more commonly beset by dust storms than rain storms, it’s the equivalent of a few months’ worth of precipitation. And when it fell on the parched and almost powdery ground, the result was a thick, ankle-deep mud that was difficult to walk in and nearly impossible to drive through.
A four-time Burning Man attendee who goes by Carmen told Yahoo’s David Artavia what her experience was like once the rain had fallen.
“I woke up on Friday, I looked outside the RV and it was kind of shocking how muddy and swampy it was. It was clear that you weren’t going to go out and do anything. And also, I was staying with a large camp and I heard that one of our large shade structures came down and knocked a bunch of stuff over so it was chaotic.”
How it went
Social media pages associated with the event first posted Friday evening that the temporary airport and the main gate in and out of the event had been closed, and messages urged festivalgoers to “help each other stay safe.” Another post on Saturday morning said that “no driving is permitted except emergency vehicles” and told people to “conserve food, water, and fuel, and shelter in a warm, safe space.”
However, organizers did say that people were free to leave on foot but it would mean a 5-mile walk through mud to get to a paved road where buses were being deployed. And with breaks in the weather, some people did attempt to leave, including DJ and music producer Diplo, whose real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz. He posted a video to social media on Saturday evening showing him and actor/comedian Chris Rock riding in the back of a truck, saying they “just walked 5 miles in the mud” before “a fan picked us up.”
For the 72,000 that stayed, a few issues did come to the surface — including the three-eyed ‘dinosaur shrimp’ that emerged from the mud — starting with the thousands of portable toilets that reportedly became disgusting when pump trucks couldn’t reach them for service. There were also unsubstantiated rumors of an E. coli outbreak, which turned into rumors of an Ebola outbreak. Neither turned out to be true.
“I never heard any confirmation of that. I never heard on official Burning Man radio anybody talking about that. I never heard from a ranger anything about that,” Carmen said. “I think that’s just silly nonsense in my opinion. I’m sure there were things like maybe flu, COVID, I don’t know, typical stuff like that I’m sure going around. But E. coli, no. Ebola. No. I don’t think so.”
One fatality was also reported, a man in his 40s, but ultimately organizers said it wasn’t weather-related and that the sheriff of Pershing County nearby was investigating. President Biden told reporters in Delaware on Sunday that he was aware of the death and the overall situation at Burning Man, and that the White House was in touch with local authorities.
As the events unfolded, people began to react on social media, including people criticizing a mom for bringing her 7-year-old son to the festival. Comparisons were also being drawn to the failed Fyre Festival, while some criticized the desire to help attendees in the first place.
However reports from inside the event have mostly painted a different picture, saying that people were pretty much unfazed by the issues.
“I think the news media has jumped at the opportunity to try to just portray this as like a hellscape, horrible Fyre Festival situation and really trying to play up the directness of it,” Carmen said. “As somebody who was there and went through all of it, that really wasn’t my experience.”
How it ended
The driving ban was officially lifted on Monday at 2 p.m., although CNN drone footage showed thousands already in their vehicles and leaving on Monday morning.
But with the announcement that all of the burns – The Man, The Chapel of Babel and The Temple – were rescheduled for Monday night through Tuesday night, organizers did encourage people to stay until Tuesday to help alleviate congestion. The Burns will also be available via the Official Burning Man Webcast.
As far as why all of this happened, one angle is that climate change was a big part of it, while there are those like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia who attributed it to God, “making sure everyone knows who God is.” Either way, a potentially very scary situation has been resolved for now.