Bunkers, Food, Armor: Disaster Prep Hits Mainstream

I'm not sure when the tipping point occurred, but at some point recently the "prepper" movement exploded and became mainstream.

Preppers are folks who detect the possibility of calamity and decide to increase their odds of surviving it by putting aside supplies. "Putting things by" -- essential throughout most of humanity's existence -- was common in the United States up until advances in transportation logistics brought about the "just in time" shipping model. Suddenly, we could get almost any supplies delivered fresh and year-round to massive community stores. What our grandparents called "lean times" became a thing of the past for even the poorest Americans.

The expectation that we could always get whatever we wanted whenever we wanted it took a couple of hard jolts around the turn of the 21st century: predictions regarding the "Y2K bug" created a resurgent interest in self-sufficiency, which was further rekindled by the 9/11 terror attacks. A decade later, fears of nuclear terrorism, misunderstood popular views about the end of the Mayan calendar, and ginned-up fears of catastrophic climate change, economic collapse, and violent weather patterns have grown what was once a fringe culture.

I didn't realize how mainstream it had become until Costco sent me an e-flyer: "Get Your Home And Garden Stocked For An Emergency And Save!" It promoted emergency preparedness, the top suggestions being a month of food storage supplies and emergency garden seeds.

Modern prepping has come a long way from the survivalists of the late 1990s. That wave focused on military supplies, weapons, and tactics, and was in many ways limited by their options. Earlier survivalists had even fewer options -- they focused on hoarding and protecting supplies in remote cabins. Yet today's preppers have a dizzying array of gourmet shelf-stable foods, "green" power options, and even custom-built housing to meet their particular survival needs. Additionally, enterprising companies now cater to nearly every desire the preppers can dream up.

National Geographic's Doomsday Preppers series featured an episode with prepper Peter Larson, and displayed the work of Paul Seyfried and Utah Shelter Systems. An underground bunker built by Utah Shelter Systems was the core of the Larson family's preparation plans, and with good reason. The underground bunkers manufactured by the company and shipped almost anywhere are designed to withstand nuclear, biological, and chemical disasters, and being buried yards underground, they are secure from all but the most determined marauders.

So what kind of person drops a bare minimum of $47,590 on a complete shelter and tens of thousands more on land, installation, and provisioning? Mr. Seyfried fiercely guards the confidentiality of his client list, but will volunteer that it includes "international bankers, hedge fund managers, attorneys, doctors, oil company geologists, business men, and movie producers."

Like any business, the bunker business has cycles and has seen business expand and contract as events bring awareness of their products. After 9/11, the company experienced an increase in sales in the Northeast, centered around New York. Texans have purchased the largest number of shelters, and they range across the Southeast and Southwest, typically as shelters against the common natural disasters that strike the southern part of the country. The most commonly purchased shelter is the $60,750-plus 10'x50' shelter which offers the best cost per square foot, and customers typically order more bunks to add capacity. Most bunkers go to individual families, but there are some small bunker communities of well-heeled preppers coming together for mutual support.

The vast majority of preppers want to set aside shelf-stable foods. Many are looking for just several days or weeks worth of supplies to get them through "normal" seasonal disasters, such as hurricane season in the Southeast, the blizzards that hit in northern parts of the country, or the threat of tornadoes that extends across the Midwest and South. Brandon Garrett of The Ready Store sees customers across the country come to his company for 72-hour emergency kits, food storage items such as dehydrated or freeze-dried foods, and other emergency supplies.