Friend in deed

Michael McHugh

Photo By David Robert

After attending the 70-person-strong European Burning Man in Spain in July, Londoner Michael McHugh, 23, originally from Ireland, came to Nevada to attend Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert. He hadn’t planned on a long stop in Reno on the way out, but hey, life throws curve balls. When he heard about Hurricane Katrina, McHugh switched gears and decided to lend some of his remaining time in the states to the Northern Nevada Chapter of the American Red Cross.

The plan was to help the Red Cross prepare to house and assist a large influx of evacuees from the South, but an evacuation planned by the Federal Emergency Management Association for Sept. 12 was cancelled. Both McHugh and the organization changed their focus and began offering help to the 60 or so families who the Red Cross reports made their way to Reno independently after the hurricane. Some left before the storm hit, and some were there to experience it, like a family from Ocean Springs, Miss., who lost their house, then spent 12 hours in an attic before being rescued by the Marines.

What were you up to in England before you made your way to Nevada?

I work as a nurse in a hospital in London, and this is just my four-week vacation. I went up to Burning Man, and I was supposed to hitch a ride up to Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, but I decided to stay here in Reno for a couple weeks and volunteer at the Red Cross.

What made you decide to stay?

I met some friends out at Burning Man on the playa who were from New Orleans. And Burning Man’s really all about gifting. It’s not really all about necklaces and beads. If you’ve got something extra that your neighbor needs, then you should share it. I’ve got the time, and I’ve got skills, so I thought, “Maybe I’ll make a little detour and stay here.”

What have you been doing with the Red Cross?

There were plans to open a shelter, so within a couple of days, the Red Cross had facilities in place to take the evacuees. They had public services in place, and now they’re not coming. An awful lot of my time here has been to help get the shelter set up and do some information work on preparing for disasters and helping out with family services, running the front desk, lugging tables, dishing out water, making coffee, you name it, whatever needs to be done, really. … The plan was really to get a shelter set up. I was going to live and work in the shelter and help the evacuees get where they were going. But now that plan has changed. I’ve been helping logistically here, getting facilities in place for people who are already here … helping on the phones—I do everything.

A few people ended up coming here from New Orleans despite the cancellation?

Most of the ones who are here have made their own way here or had family and stuff that have brought them here, so they’ve been pretty lucky in comparison to others.

What’s the Red Cross been able to do for them?

Local, county and state officials have had a temporary set-up here in order to allow them to access services. They’ve provided a one-stop center for people to access services such as health, social services, benefits. The Red Cross have also been just providing a friendly face in town for people arriving, helping them to connect with the relevant agencies, helping them out with a bit of money to get the bare essentials that they need.

How about you? Where are you staying?

Basically, the Burning Man people have been totally awesome. They rocked and rolled; as soon as we heard out at the festival that stuff had happened, there was a whole table set up. All the media people allowed people to use their Internet and computers to find out what was happening. Since I’ve been in town, I was originally planning to stay at the shelter, but since this has happened, I put up an appeal on the Internet and within a couple of minutes, people were calling me, offering places to stay. So I’ve just been staying with people in town.

Have you had any free time?

Yep.

What have you been doing?

I’ve been getting out, seeing Reno and hooking up with other people I met from the festival. Off out to Pyramid Lake, just kind of enjoying my trip before I hitch a ride to San Francisco.

Then back home?

Yeah, I’ve got a week in San Francisco, so I’m going to hook up with some Burning Man people there and chat about some projects we’re going to do for next year. And then back off to London.