If you hear the term "survivalist" and it conjures images of militants and conspiracy theorists— residing on the fringes and on compounds, armed to the teeth—well, it's time to reset your doomsday clock. A worldwide community of preppers - those who stockpile goods and skill-up for extreme catastrophes - is girding less for the end of days, than for a disaster that calls for taking cover. A climate emergency, civil unrest, the possibility of a dirty bomb, to say nothing of a global pandemic that suddenly shuts down the world. It was COVID that turned abstract apocalyptic scenarios into a reality. Modern preppers come at it from all angles and for all kinds of reasons. We went high and low, talking to a few of the millions of Americans who have joined the movement.
Bradley Garrett: We're literally going over the edge of the mountain right now.
Bradley Garrett led our crew down a narrow trail near his home in Big Bear Lake, California.
Bradley Garrett: When I moved here, one of my first-- off-road adventures was to figure out how to get off this mountain without using the highway. And that's what we're doing right now.
Jon Wertheim: What are we going, ten miles an hour?
Bradley Garrett: Nine.
A former university professor, Garrett wrote a book two years ago about prepping then became a convert himself.
Bradley Garrett: Our country doesn't have the infrastructure anymore to be able to deal with emergencies in a meaningful way.
Behind the wheel of his hybrid four-by-four, he offroads, not for kicks, but to practice what preppers call bugging out - getting out of Dodge in the event of disaster, steering clear of the masses.
Bradley Garrett: We'll take these roads and make sure that, you know, they're not washed out and we can still use 'em.
Jon Wertheim: Just give it a dry run?
Bradley Garrett: Give (LAUGH) it a dry run, yeah.
Test-running an escape route to the Mojave Desert sounds like overkill. Until it doesn't. Consider this: days before our interview with Garrett, a wildfire forced him to put his bug out plan into action.
Bradley Garrett: And it climbed the ridge.
Jon Wertheim: I mean, literally right behind us.
Bradley Garrett: Literally to right here. My neighbor came and knocked on my door. And he said, "I think it's time to evacuate." There were helicopters pulling water from the lake and dumping it on the fire. And we decided to go. So we packed up the dogs, and the guinea pigs, and we were out the door.
Jon Wertheim: How long it take you to pack?
Bradley Garrett: Thirty minutes.
The wildfire burned more than 1000 acres, but didn't reach Garrett's cabin. Still, he used the close call to assess his readiness.
Jon Wertheim: How do you think you did?
Bradley Garrett: Pretty well, we fell down on documents. Birth certificates, credit cards. They were all over the house. And I had stuff in filing cabinets. It was a mess. I wanna get it down to 15.
Jon Wertheim: Fifteen minutes?
Bradley Garrett: Fifteen minutes out the door. Getting the dogs out is no problem. The guinea pigs are a little harder to wrangle.
The act of gathering up animals in a natural disaster recalls the original prepper. Noah, of course, loaded them into an Ark. But in 2022 A.D., preppers still confront catastrophes of biblical proportions - as varied as they are frequent. In the last few months alone, Hurricane Ian showed us the wrath of nature, while Vladimir Putin showed us the wrath of man, issuing a warning he might use nuclear weapons. If and when disasters strike, FEMA, the overburdened federal agency charged with leading the responses, has warned Americans they should be ready to go it alone for several days.
John Ramey is prepared to go it alone for two years. Ramey started his career in Silicon Valley and was an innovation adviser to the Obama administration. From his home in Colorado, he publishes a roundup of threats and how to prep for them… best practices and bug-out bag checklists. His website, The Prepared, is a leading voice for the measured segment of this growing community.
John Ramey: We think about 15 million Americans are actively prepping right now. In terms of percentage of households, we are at or about to cross 10% of all households. And just a few years ago, that was 2% or 3%.
Jon Wertheim: What happened to trigger this?
John Ramey: More and more people over the last decade that have accepted the reality of climate change and how that impacts the disasters and things that we go through almost every day now. What's happened with our economy since the global financial crisis, what's happened with-- political discourse and institutional failures. Broadly speaking, more and more people realizing that they are their own first responder.
Part of Ramey's work entails reviewing the glut of supplies on the multibillion dollar prepping market: got unsafe drinking water? Here's a $25 filter…
John Ramey: It will filter 100,000 gallons of water.
Cell service down? No problem for that old faithful, ham radio.
John Ramey: You at least have the ability to communicate.
Ramey says the uptick in prepping cuts across national divides—politics, economics, region.
Jon Wertheim: Is there a typical prepper?
John Ramey: Not anymore. There used to be.
John Ramey: In the past, the reality TV shows that would cover preppers, they'd find someone who had the most extreme, fantastical concern, like fascist alien zombies arriving on an asteroid. That is so night and day from where we're at now.
In the foothills of Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, we met Heidi Keller in her vegetable garden. A restaurant supply company worker by day, she lives alone and calls herself a homestead prepper, ready to hunker down - or bug in - in a crisis.
Heidi Keller: You can put raw meat in here…
She recently acquired the hottest item for preppers: a freeze dryer.
Heidi Keller: That's a pound of ground beef.
Heidi Keller: This is where I keep all of my canned goods…
Inside her pantry, Keller has canned, freeze-dried and stored enough food to get by for a year without leaving her property.
Jon Wertheim: Chicken, meat, roast beef…
And it doubles as protection from surging food prices.
After fires spread through nearby Gatlinburg during a 2016 drought, Keller says she wanted a back up.
Heidi Keller: When the fires came it made me rethink, "Oh, my gosh, I can't have everything in my house because if something does happen, and there is a fire and my house burns, it can't be all in one location." So the long term storage things I have someplace else.
Jon Wertheim: Where is that?
Heidi Keller: In a secure location. (LAUGH) It's not here.
Jon Wertheim: Fort Knox.
Heidi Keller: No.
Jon Wertheim: How far from here?
Heidi Keller: Not far. Within five miles.
Jon Wertheim: You give us more hints?
Heidi Keller: Why would I do that? No, you know, I'm not.
As a rule, preppers don't like to reveal too much. You might say they also have trust issues with the country's infrastructure and the ability of its institutions to deliver in a crisis.
Jon Wertheim: If there's some kind of catastrophe, to what extent do you trust the government?
Heidi Keller: I'm not gonna down the government. I mean, they do the best that they can. But pretty much the government's not gonna take care of you, not because they may not want to, but because there's too much going on. That's common sense.
Jon Wertheim: You're prepared to go it alone?
Heidi Keller: You have to be to some degree. My biggest concern for two years it took me to get a wood stove. I didn't have that. And I'm all electric. So I was not prepared. And finally when I got it, it was like, "Phew," finally I'm-- I feel more comfortable now. I'm okay.
If all it takes is a wood stove for Heidi Keller to feel comfortable, when the sun rises on post-apocalyptic America, the monied class will find comfort here. We drove to the belly of the country—central Kansas, flat as a countertop; hemmed by soybean and cornfields—where we met Larry Hall, a former defense contractor turned, shall we say, niche property developer.
Jon Wertheim: Who did you actually buy this from?
In 2008, he paid $300,000 for this decommissioned nuclear missile silo. He and investors put in $22 million to refashion it as a luxury bunker: The Survival Condo.
Jon Wertheim: Considerable thickness for a door to a residence…
Inside the 16,000 pound doors, an apartment building, except this one is jammed 15 stories into the ground.
There's room for 75 people, all but three of the 14 private units have been sold. One three-bedroom - with tv screens posing as windows - goes for $2.4 million - cash.
Jon Wertheim: Who are your clients?
Larry Hall: These are all self-made people. We don't have any lottery winners or-- old money. We have retired doctors, professional people.
Jon Wertheim: Do they share a particular ideology?
Larry Hall: No they don't. I know that there's Independents, and I know there's Democrats, and Republican-- you've got the whole mix here. But what they have in common is they all wanna have a safe place for their family.
The end of the world as we know it? They'll feel fine sitting poolside, unless they'd prefer to go rock climbing. No one was living here full-time when we visited, but Hall says the place was hopping at the onset of the pandemic.
Larry Hall: The owners, for the first time ever, all came here at the same time. All of 'em. So 19 kids were here.
Hall's sales pitch reduces to three words: peace of mind.
And with dozens of strangers holed up together in a crisis…
Larry Hall: Here's our bar...
He hired a psychologist to consult on design, to avoid a subterranean version of "Lord of the Flies."
Jon Wertheim: I did notice what looked like a jail cell.
Larry Hall: We do have a jail cell. That's because we also have a bar and a lounge. And if you have a bad day or you drink too much you might get an adult time out.
Five different power sources keep it all humming. There's a five year supply of stored food—and hydroponics to grow more. The Survival Condo also employs doormen: that is, armed guards at the gate.
Jon Wertheim: To what extent are you worried this place could be overrun during an actual crisis?
Larry Hall: This place was engineered to withstand a 20-kiloton-- nuclear warhead detonated within a half mile. You know, you can rant and rave, and throw smoke bombs, and Molotov cocktails, and you're gonna scratch my paint.
Jon Wertheim: Whoa.
Hall is converting another silo half an hour away. Most bunkers worldwide are not fortified luxuries. We get a vivid demonstration of their practicality as Ukrainians take cover. In Australia, one man made news when he emerged unscathed from his backyard bunker after a deadly bushfire. Here in the U.S., one personal bunker manufacturer told us he takes a new order every other day.
Jon Wertheim: What do you make of the spike in bunker sales?
John Ramey: The vast majority of people should never get to the point of having a bunker. And in fact, I really dislike the bunker narratives because it takes away from the conversation that we should be having, which is how do we make our existing homes and our existing communities more resilient? Rather than I'm gonna quit society and go live in a decommissioned missile silo.
Jon Wertheim: You say you would never build a bunker. Why not?
Bradley Garrett: You can only stockpile so much in your bunker. I can only withstand so much time in it. I would be desperate to peek out (LAUGH) and see what's happening outside.
Bradley Garrett won't bunker down, but he has doubled down on bugging out. He keeps a second truck, this 1972 GMC, in his yard, in case the lights go out for good, taking out electronics and turning his hybrid escape vehicle into the equivalent of an expensive brick. The specter of massive power grid failure - the result of a nuclear attack or a solar storm - preoccupies many preppers.
Bradley Garrett: The current estimates from the government is it would take two years to rebuild the grid.
Jon Wertheim: Two years? WiFi goes down for five minutes and everybody panics.
Bradley Garrett: Exactly. And-- and preppers say that it's 72 hours to animal.
Jon Wertheim: Meaning what?
Bradley Garrett: Meaning that it takes about three days for people to totally lose it.
Preppers call this the S-H-T-F scenario, the proverbial "S" hitting the fan. A breakdown of social norms. John Ramey says don't panic, just get prepping.
John Ramey: If you have two weeks' worth of food and water in your home, a radio, some basic supplies, that alone, that little bit of effort and cost covers you for the vast majority of scenarios. That's that minimum threshold that everyone should aspire to.
As more Americans stock up, bracing for the worst while still intent on surviving it, we may be approaching the day when "prepper" isn't a loaded word. Until then…
Jon Wertheim: Is there a preferred term now?
Bradley Garrett: The one that I prefer that's popping up is "doomer optimist".
Jon Wertheim: Sounds like an oxymoron.
Bradley Garrett: This is someone that-- that recognizes that disaster is inevitable but they're optimistic that they're going to be able to make their way through them–
Jon Wertheim: They'll concede the catastrophe, but they'll be okay?
Bradley Garrett: Yeah. You have to live with hope, you know? If you don't have hope about the future, there's no point in preparing for it.
Produced by Nathalie Sommer and Jacqueline Williams. Associate producer, Kaylee Tully. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Joe Schanzer.
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