Dressed in a navy-and-white-striped polo, fitted khaki shorts, and a hefty silver watch, Mike, 37, blends in with his neighbors as they return to the well-appointed high-rise they inhabit in Alexandria, Virginia, after a casual Friday at work. Mike, who moved to the D.C. area about a year ago for a website job in nearby Crystal City, is the picture of American industriousness and upscale success. He’s the first person in the office each morning, he’s working on a master’s in communications in his spare time, and he lives in a sleekly designed apartment with a spectacular view of the Washington Monument.
But another picture of Mike, also very American, starts coming into focus after he opens the double doors to his kitchen pantry.
There, he’s stashed enough food and water to live on for 90 days. The inventory is staggering: a floor full of water jugs lined up like soldiers; 150 water-purification tablets; 75 freeze-dried meals like kung pao chicken and two dozen ready-to-eat meals (MREs), complete with mini Tabasco bottles and breath mints; 20 pounds of rice; enough canned goods to stock a grocery-store aisle ... and dessert. “I love chocolate,“ Mike says; his personal hoard includes 60 Hershey’s bars—50 of the 3.5-ounce variety and 10 one-pounders.
He shuts the pantry doors and continues the tour in his living room, where there are 10 backpacks lined up against the rear wall. Some are filled with more freeze-dried food, others with camping gear. “This is part of my thing that is maybe weird,“ he says, betraying no sense of irony as he opens one backpack and pulls out a T-shirt, pants, a rain jacket, and a hat—a full camouflage outfit. “If things do go bad, I’m not going to walk down the highway looking like everyone else.“
In the sixties and seventies, men who considered themselves survivalists found a lean-to (or better yet, a bunker) in the country and holed up with a ham radio, a shotgun, and rabbit meat, anticipating—and perhaps, in a perverse way, wishing for—the nuclear holocaust that they considered inevitable. Today, guys like Mike who are worried about, as he says, “a complete societal breakdown,“ prefer to be called “preppers“ (as befits their polo-clad ways). They’re living off the fat of the land, not off the grid. They’re the guys in suits (most preppers are men) next to you on the train or the expressway, making their way home to watch The Office or Monday Night Football or to play soccer with their kids in the back yard. And they are not about to leave their good jobs and desirable zip codes just because at any moment the economy could collapse or a bird-flu pandemic might arrive. Instead, preppers are cramming their homes full of goods to help them through the tough times ahead, including luxuries that old-school survivalists would scoff at, from laptops in ammunition canisters to bottles of vodka to iPods in waterproof cases.
“Hard-core survivalists say I’m a complete poseur,“ says Mike, who estimates he’s spent about $10,000 on his stockpile. “They give me flak for living in the city. True, I’m eight miles from one of the biggest targets in the country—but I’m not going to live in some podunk town. I like to go out to dinner and bars. I like my nice, soft, cushy life.“
According to Jim Rawles of SurvivalBlog.com, survivalism is growing at a rate not seen since the seventies, fueled by such obvious crises as the housing crash, the tanking economy, looming environmental disasters, and the spike in oil prices. All of these things have conspired to validate the preppers’ paranoid worldview, but, more than the supposed Y2K computer bugs or the post-September 11 terrorism panic, the catalyst was Hurricane Katrina. It was an unholy confluence of natural calamity, government failure, and ensuing human suffering, disorder, and anarchy.
“For me, the horrid government response to Katrina really struck home,“ says Jason, a 34-year-old who runs SHTFblog.com, a survivalist website. “I don’t think the government is out to get me, but I do think it’ll be inept at delivering help should I and much of the nation need it during a time of disaster. Then there’s SARS, global warming, increased food and fuel costs ... Watch the evening news—why wouldn’t you prepare?“
Preppers don’t preach about the Rapture or hold up the end is near signs. They keep their identities under wraps, partly because they don’t want their neighbors and coworkers to think of them as better-dressed versions of Ted Kaczynski. “I don’t talk about it to a lot of people,“ Mike says. “They make fun of you.“ But preppers are also secretive because they don’t want a crowd at the door—waiting for handouts—when things do fall apart.
Jack Spirko, a 35-year-old media-company owner, lives in a subdivision outside Dallas, in a sprawling house with a home movie theater and two living rooms. He’s taken pains to make sure that none of his neighbors know he’s been vacuum-packing quail meat and stocking up on zucchini from his backyard garden for the past three years. “If you walked up to one of them and said, Do you know Jack? Do you think he has six months of food in the house?’“ he says, “they’d say no. We don’t wear camo. We don’t look like survivalists. We look normal.“
And if The Day After Tomorrow comes, preppers are going to maintain their ordinary, comfortable lives for as long as they can. Spirko, for one, always has around 20 pounds of Starbucks coffee on hand (“If I couldn’t have a cup of coffee in the morning, that would be my apocalypse,“ he says, chuckling); grows jalapeños and tomatoes in his garden to make salsa, which he jars and stores in the fridge; and keeps his wine rack full with about 80 bottles of Argentine Malbecs and Chilean Cabernet-Merlot blends. This past summer, when grocery stores stopped selling tomatoes because of the salmonella scare, Spirko gave his away by the bagful. “Then when they thought jalapeños were the culprit,“ he says, “I was making jalapeño slices with cheese and bacon.“
Preppers insist they don’t anticipate such far-out end-times scenarios as an asteroid hitting the earth or all the circuit boards in the country going down at the same time. Nor, they say, did they grow up watching post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man and Mad Max and hoping they would become reality one day. They’re rational guys, watching their mutual funds tank just like you are, and thinking it might be smart to invest in some extra food, gasoline, and a few of their favorite indulgences, just in case.
Eric, a 32-year-old CPA in Northern California, is so concerned about his stores’ going to waste that he has his wife and children do regular tastings of freeze-dried foods and MREs, so they can decide what they do and don’t like. “Why have it if they’re not going to eat it?“ he says. Unfortunately, his family proclaimed all of the MRE fare—except for the chocolate-chip brownies and chocolate-peanut-butter spread—“gross.“ So Eric has squirreled away M&Ms in bulk to keep the kids quiet. For himself, he has a case of vodka. “If the shit hits the fan, I might want to tie one on,“ he says.
Most preppers build up their rations by themselves, but not always because they don’t want help. More often than not, their wives, girlfriends, and friends think they’re fantasizing about disaster scenarios so they can play the role of Will Smith in I Am Legend.
“My wife thinks I’m crazy,“ says Matt, a 37-year-old executive at a high-tech company outside Dallas. “She’s sort of a Pollyanna.“ She doesn’t understand his weekend trips to a cannery, where he preserves different types of pasta—including farfalle and rotini, plus alphabet shapes for his 1-year-old daughter (“Macaroni would get old quick,“ he says)—nor why he’s commandeered so much closet space. “But if a dirty bomb hit Dallas,“ he continues, with the slightly misinformed hyperbole that preppers sometimes engage in, “every grocery store would be wiped out in an hour. That stuff can happen, and she doesn’t think it can.“
When Paul, a 29-year-old sales representative in Denver, hosts dinner parties, his guests sometimes ask why the kitchen shelves are sagging with the weight of all the canned food. He says it was on sale. He has a few like-minded friends, however, whom he calls when he spies a good deal at the grocery store. “They have their pantries,“ he says. “If I see a 15-pound bag of rice for $15, I’ll let them know.“ And even though his wife isn’t completely supportive (“She just lets me do my little thing,“ he says), he stores tampons and makeup for her.
But all of this dogged readying for doomsday doesn’t mean the preppers don’t wonder occasionally whether they should be spending time rebalancing their 401(k)s instead of setting aside textured vegetable protein. Whenever Philip Nelson, 36, a technology executive in San Antonio, goes shopping for more things to add to his stash, such as backup video games for his PlayStation Portable or board games for his kids, he thinks, Am I losing my mind? Then he checks out the latest hurricane news on CNN.com and thinks, We’re in a weird time. “The more I try to talk myself out of it,“ he says, “the more I think, I’m crazy if I don’t do this.“