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Preppers: Real troops readying for the worst

Oct. 18, 2012 - 09:17AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 18, 2012 - 09:17AM  |  
Suvivology 101 blogger Marine Gunnery Sgt. David Williams is seen with his wife, Angel Babi Williams.
Suvivology 101 blogger Marine Gunnery Sgt. David Williams is seen with his wife, Angel Babi Williams. (Courtesy of David Williams)
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The bunker biz

Everyone knows the end is near, but there’s still time to find awesome accommodations for Armageddon. If you’ve been wondering where to ride out the end of the world as we know it, you can feel fine about your options. From in-house reinforcements and budget backyard bunkers to former missile silo fixer-uppers and luxury-condo strongholds, you can find doomsday digs to fit every budget.
While most of the U.S. housing market has suffered through its biggest downturn in modern times, this is one segment that’s booming. Doomsday bunker builders are reporting exponential growth in recent years.
"We’ve been doubling our business every year since 2008," says Walton McCarthy, president of Dallas-based Radius Engineering International. "We’ve gone from $2 million in 2008 to $36 million this year."
Some of the options:
• In-house upgrade: The biggest threat many ever will face is the house-crushing wind of a hurricane or tornado. Quick-access, reinforced "safe rooms" — like DuPont’s StormRoom — are becoming the choice for many.
• Backyard bunkers: If you’re worried about nukes, chemical or biological threats or an electromagnetic pulse blackout, you’ll need something underground with an air and water filtration system and enough storage for at least a few months’ worth of supplies. Hardened Structures, of Virginia Beach, Va., has options that range from $40,000 to $400,000.
• Backcountry retreat: For those who want to head for the hills, Dallas-based Radius Engineering’s modular systems usually can be buried in a weekend. A fully stocked eight-person retreat, with internal generators and water and air filters, sells for $124,000.
• Cold War fixer-uppers: Topeka, Kan.-based 20th Century Castles has about a dozen Cold War missile sites and communications bunkers listed for sale: $750,000 will buy you a three-bedroom log cabin in New York sitting atop an Atlas F silo already converted into a luxury retreat. Or, for $185,000, you can convert your own 23-acre Kansas site yourself.
• Community-based survival: Like an underground cruise ship, Terra Vivos sells survival staterooms in its community shelters for the "chosen few." Spaces start at $50,000.
• Living large: Starting at $1.1 million, you can buy a luxury underground condo in a retrofitted missile silo. Set to accommodate a total of 80 people, Survival Condo’s first location is already sold out, but the company is taking applications for its next project.

Gunnery Sgt. David Williams doesn't care if you think he's crazy. Yes, he stockpiles months' worth of extra food and water, plus weapons and other supplies, inside his Gulfport, Miss., home. Yes, he'll tell you all about any number of looming doomsday theories.

Yes, he even has his own blog dedicated to surviving those nasty events.

He doesn't care if you think he's nuts — he just wants you to think.

And then start preparing.

Williams is part of the growing nationwide "prepper" movement, which draws deeply from the military and veteran community. Prepper websites are full of current and former troops looking to connect with like-minded folks who share concerns that range from end-of-times Armageddon to more regional clock-stoppers such as a repeat of Hurricane Katrina.

"A lot of the guys in my unit think I'm crazy. I'll push the zombie apocalypse and the whole 2012 end-of-the-world business. I don't really believe any of that crap, but it makes it fun," he says. "When you're planning for the zombie apocalypse, you're still planning."

Unlike Cold War-era survivalists who envisioned riding out a nuclear holocaust in private fallout shelters or secret mountain hideaways, modern preppers are largely an inclusive bunch focused on building self-sustaining communities that will be able to weather all kinds of possible storms.

One post on a popular website from a would-be prepper says he's an Army officer up for battalion command:

"Looking for advice, comments, or even to establish contacts for a long-term exploration of preparing a site for my family, either as a standalone family-style location near a set of like-minded families, or even to buy land adjacent to [a] current retreat location."

And that prepper's not alone:

"Survival really is a community effort," Williams says. "If you're just one dude or one family living in a bunker, what are you living for? What's the point? What are [you] trying to stick around for? You might as well go out with everybody else because there isn't going to be anything when you climb out of your hole."

It's a topic he's spent some time thinking about. Just back from Afghanistan, where he was assigned to a Navy Seabee construction unit, Williams has served as an instructor at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., and was also a survival, evasion, resistance and escape instructor. Over the past three years, he's written the Survivology 101 blog.

"If we all die together, we all die together," Williams says. "But if we make it through, we become a strong community and we rebuild. It may not be the die-hard survival mentality, but there has to be something to live for, too. You have to have something more than yourself; otherwise, you're a sociopath and probably don't need to be living anyway."

End of time

It's no wonder folks are nervous these days.

Experts warn the end-of-year "fiscal cliffs" could spell economic doom for the country. Solar storms threaten to unleash electromagnetic pulses that some worry could fry the entire grid while killing electronics-dependent cars and aircraft along with it. And, of course, the Mayan calendar ends mysteriously Dec. 21. And that's just over the next few months.

Let's not kid ourselves, says retired Marine Lt. Col. Mark Wriggle: "Things are getting pretty [bad]." After a few tours downrange, Wriggle figured he'd seen enough hell on earth to last a lifetime. But it didn't take long after retiring in 2006 for him to start wondering if the worst was yet to come.

"People just don't seem as friendly or happy. There is this increasing volatility across the globe. There are more weather issues, more earthquakes, more tsunamis, more war — everything just seems to be escalating," he says.

"I want to believe that it can't happen here in America," Wriggle says. "But I'm also enough of a pragmatist to put in enough preparation on my part to improve the odds in my favor if things do go south. Like they say, good luck is where preparation and opportunity meet."

So for the first time in his life, Wriggle decided it was time to prepare. "Very slowly I've built a very defensive capability. I want to be able to live inside the house out of sight for at least 30 days." That's included stockpiling food, water, first aid supplies, extra clothing, seeds, and weapons and ammunition.

"I consider myself an amateur prepper," he says. He's not sure exactly what disaster he's prepping for, but "economic collapse and social anarchy feel like the closest alligators to the boat."

But with what he calls the "very real possibility" of bigger and uglier alligators edging ever closer, Wriggle says he's decided he doesn't want to have to wrestle them alone.

Modern arks

"People around the world are sensing that a global life-changing event is just ahead," reads the website of Terra Vivos, one of several companies offering slots in massive underground villages designed to ride out the worst of worst-case scenarios. The company has completed one site in Indiana, retrofitting a Cold War-era deep earth communications bunker into an 80-person underground ark stocked with enough food and supplies to remain self-sufficient for at least a year.

Plans are underway for two much larger facilities in Nebraska and Colorado. "Vivos is the life assurance solution for you and your family to survive the next devastating catastrophe from nature or mankind," reads the company's marketing material. "Ask yourself, which side of the door do you want to be on?"

Wriggle, who started working for the company four months ago, says he has 25 family members he wants to put on the right side of that door. With prices at $50,000 per person, that won't come cheap. "I've got kids and grandkids I want in there. I'm the last person on the list."

Recently retired Army Col. (Dr.) James Ard already has three slots in a Vivos facility for himself, his wife and their 12-year-old daughter.

Ard says his concerns range from pandemic outbreaks to government and social breakdown to large-scale cataclysmic events.

"I think the biggest threat period really is over the next few months to a year," Ard says.

"It's fine to have something with just your family, but how are you going to defend it? What are you going to do when you come out? You need doctors, security, people who know construction. It takes a community to rebuild a community."

In the meantime, Ard has rented a home on the outskirts of San Diego. He made it a point to find a place that's on high ground "and can be easily defended" with multiple access routes to the desert.

"If I see enough signs that tell me it's time to go, we'll be on the first flight to Indiana," he says. If a worst-case situation unfolds, he expects a short period "where it's clear something is really wrong, but you can still travel, but it won't be long before roads are shut down and martial law is declared."

Networking for disasters

"You can't plan for every scenario," says Williams, the Marine gunny. "You have to plan for the most likely ones. That starts with personal disasters. My personal disasters are planned for with life insurance and savings and personal stores in the house."

When he lived in the mountains of California, nearly 90 miles from the closest grocery store, he kept more than six months' worth of provisions in his home. His plan was to hunker down in place for any regional or larger problems. "We were in the ideal bug-out location. We had a whole room set up that was like our own little 7-Eleven. We could just go in there and get whatever we needed," he says. "We did it casually. Every two weeks when I got paid we bought three weeks' worth of food and supplies. We'd always buy one week's surplus. After awhile, that builds up."

Now in Mississippi, he says, that's not practical. "Here the threat is the ocean, so our whole plan had to change. Because of this location, if anything happens, I'm getting out of here. There's no way I'm staying here for any length of time if I can help it."

While he says he'd love his own rural retreat — and likely will move his family into one when he retires — in the meantime, he relies on a close-knit network of friends.

"We all have a mutual agreement. If I show up at their door with my wife and kids and dogs and cat, we're welcome. And we can stay as a long as we need to. And they have the same with me. So no matter what's going on, I can either take the nearest location, the farthest location, one in the opposite direction of the damage — anything I want and just go. I don't have to call. I don't have to worry about it. I just show up at their door, and we figure it out from there."

Even while he was in Afghanistan, he was able to put that plan into action recently.

"When Hurricane Isaac came through and it looked like it was going to sack the coast and pull another Katrina, my wife and kids grabbed the animals, jumped into the truck and drove to our friend's house in North Carolina and stayed there three days until the storm passed. It cost us gas money, and that was it."

Williams says he'd put that same plan into action for worst-case scenarios. If an EMP shut down the national grid — something he thinks is a real concern — "like most people, we'd be hoofing it out of here on foot. We have places to go, local places and far places. I have the skills to keep my family alive in the woods, and I have the weaponry to defend us and to hunt and gather food. But it's not something I'd ever want to do."

And that's why he preps for it.

"People ask me, ‘How do you know when you're ready?' You're ready when you know that you don't ever want it to happen to you, and that's why you just keep on preppin'."

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