Jorge Villa was an exporter with an engineering degree from the University of Miami when Hurricane Andrew struck Kendall in 1992. As the storm arrived, he took his pregnant wife and the rest of his family to a warehouse space across from the Tamiami airport. It was a clear, breezy evening. He bolted the roll-down door, and the family laid out sleeping bags. By 1 a.m., he could hear the ventilation fans being ripped off the roof. By 2 a.m., it sounded like a freight train was running over the building. The rooms filled with water. His wife felt like she was going into labor.
When he emerged, devastation was everywhere. Warehouses just like his were gone. Airplanes were scattered. He spent the next seven years of free time devising and constructing a shelter that could withstand hurricanes and virtually any other attack.
Today, the yard outside his warehouse is filled with 18-ton bunkers — octagons of white-painted concrete atop thick, square steel legs. They look virtually immovable. In the office, a child's drawing shows one of the UFO-like objects, with the name of his company, "U.S. Bunkers," scrawled along the top.
Villa will custom-manufacture one of these units for anywhere from $8,000 to $60,000. Options include beds, built-in toilets, air-conditioning hookups, toxic-gas filtration systems, gun turrets, rocket-propelled-grenade armor, video surveillance, plumbing, and snappy wood trim. Villa says he has sold "a couple dozen units" since starting manufacturing in 1999.
He cites growing interest in the shelters in the past few years, due to uncertainties about the economy. He has received calls from people concerned about the end of the Mayan calendar this coming December. The units he has sold are hidden in back yards around the state, away from the prying eyes of neighbors who would seek shelter in a time of need. Solutions like this appeal to a growing segment of people who are actively preparing for what they think is inevitable: devastation on a scale we have never known.
Some of them fit the stereotype of survivalists: the sometimes-camoed, always-armed fellows who wander in and out of gun shops and banter about calibers at the counter. But the image of the hostile sociopath hoarding guns under a tarp is an outdated one, and it's not good PR for those who want others to prepare. Survivalism has gone family-friendly, and its proponents call themselves "preppers."
Terrorism, alien attacks, the Mayan apocalypse — the typical doom-and-gloom scenarios for the end of the world — are on some preppers' minds. But a more immediate, and more unsettling, threat is the chance of economic failure. Preppers imagine a worthless U.S. dollar and all financial investments wiped away — and along with them all the rules governing behavior and property. And they, like Villa, will do what comes naturally: work to protect their families, whatever that might require.
Neal Wiseman can see his entire shop from where he stands, behind the glass display case at Dixie Guns and Ammo, but he can't see the future — not yet.
That doesn't mean he won't try. Wiseman is in his 30s, with a soldier's buzzcut and the friendly forward momentum of a high-school wrestling coach. A pair of iPhone earbuds frames his face as he greets customers.
It took a little faith for Wiseman to buy this business, tucked into a chainlink-fenced corner of a Pompano Beach public-storage park, with a partner in 2008. Sales are brisk, but the feds are always a distant threat, ready to shut him down for selling a stolen gun or failing to check registrations. The shop relies on hand-painted signs and word of mouth.
Wiseman used to sell residential real estate, but around 2005 he thought he saw home prices begin to flatten. "I got extremely defensive in my positioning," he says. He sold off 14 properties and became a police officer. "I thought things were going to really crash at that time, so I was wrong. But the situation is progressively getting more volatile."
He leads me into the back office, where he does his bookkeeping, and shuts the door. Bars cover the window. Settling into a swivel chair at his desk, Wiseman unpacks a rifle from a cardboard box and expertly pieces it together, aiming for a moment at a spot on the wall.
If society collapses, one thing is for sure: The glass counter and electronic cash register separating his business from his customers won't count for much. In a scenario where there is no money, no electricity, no doctors, and no food, the people who haven't prepared — the "zombies," as they're called in the prepper community — will swarm the preppers. Wiseman will need to find a new way of living, taking survival and protection into his own hands, leaving behind his reliance on the value of a dollar or a police officer's word. "For now, I'm still selling shit that other people made," he admits. "I haven't found my place in that society."
Wiseman moderates a group on Meetup.com called the South Florida Survivalist Network, Region 6. On the network's website, members of the group discuss various end-of-the-world scenarios (officially called "shit-hits-the-fan," or SHTF, in prepper lingo). He reads a quote from another prepper: "It always has been and always will be the power of the mind that has the most influence on the course of human events. Practice now, store now, think outside of your comfort zone. Each and every moment that our [electrical and communications] grid is up is a blessing."
We get up to leave, but we're trapped in the office. Not realizing we were still in the back, Wiseman's partner closed the shop and went home, locking us in. Before I fully register what has happened, Wiseman has unsheathed a machete. He uses it to jimmy the lock in a single motion.
At his home in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Wiseman has rigged pipes connected to gutters to allow rainwater to flow into plastic collection barrels. A fledgling vegetable garden blooms by the front door.
"I'm currently prepared to self-sustain for at least a full year, with no contact with the outside world, with a family of four and two dogs," he explains. Inside the garage, he keeps his "preps," or supplies. Instead of kayaks and bicycles, he stores food, fuel, tampons, and toilet paper. He negotiated with Publix managers for about a dozen buckets of vacuum-packed bulk grains and beans. A shelving unit holds rows of boxed pasta and canned fruits and vegetable. He has calculated exactly how many rations his family will need to stay alive.
His wife is a lawyer, he says, and she makes good money. She isn't nearly as involved in prepping, but she allows him to spend part of the family budget on items such as the tremendous olive-green military-surplus backpack that stands ready to go, bulging with food, weapons, and medical supplies. Wiseman would take it outside to practice walking with it, but he doesn't because he'd probably be stopped by cops. It's not difficult to imagine him shouldering the pack while walking alone down the middle of a street with fires raging on both sides and threats in every shadow.
Inside the house, Wiseman greets his two little sons, one of whom is old enough to babble excitedly. He gives candy to the younger boy because Mom isn't home yet, and turns on cartoons on the flat-screen TV set. The children's nanny says goodbye and leaves.
Wiseman surveys his territory. "After the collapse," he says, "I'm going to miss the nanny."
Here's his picture of a postcollapse world: "You'll have a million predators who own guns and have made no preps. Those are the people to guard against."
I arrive early one Saturday evening in February for the South Florida preppers' monthly meet-and-greet barbecue at Wiseman's shop. An older man named Mr. Ike grills hamburgers in a parking space, while families with children fix up plates and pop sodas under a canopy of camouflage netting.
Wiseman has been running a promotion: Buy 100 rounds of ammo and get an Army-surplus metal ammunition can, a bit smaller than a shoebox, free. Not only can these boxes be used to store bullets or other items, but they can also be fashioned into a rudimentary Faraday cage. He explains that many preppers fear an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of destructive gamma waves, triggered by a solar flare or a nuclear weapon launched into the sky. Within minutes, such a pulse could fry our electrical and communications grids and destroy the integrated-circuit chips inside all unshielded electronics. But get one of these boxes, line it with foil, and pop an extra phone or radio inside: instant shield.
Outside the store, I find Chris Petrovich, a 42-year-old Peruvian-American man who wears a rosary underneath his usual tropical shirt. If Wiseman is the social coordinator for the preppers, Petrovich is their diplomat.
His inspiration comes not from a single disaster, but from an accretion of scenes that most people in South Florida spend their lives ignoring. He traveled through the world's poorest countries as a young man working for his father's agricultural consulting firm. The rainbow of stamps in his expired passport holds horror stories. He doesn't want to go into details, not at first.
Petrovich is also vague when describing his day job. From a nondescript office in Hollywood, he does business with developing nations, consulting on agricultural equipment sales. On the side, he also teaches daylong basic survival classes for a small fee, advertising through the Meetup site. Students often come to him nervous and overwhelmed, Petrovich says. He tells them two things: "Anyone can prepare, and it's not too late." It's almost like joining a church.
He is intent on showing me that many preppers these days defy the white-male stereotypes and that women in charge of their families' finances are the fastest-growing part of the group. He introduces me to Amy, a wide-eyed National Rifle Association member who recently moved here from California and learned about prepping from friends in the hunting and firearms communities. I also meet Zee, an African-American police officer in Miami who says she was inspired to prep by the mayhem she sees every day on the poorest streets of South Florida.
They're both friendly over burgers and beer, but guarded about the preparations they've made. Neither will return my calls later.
Then I meet a man in his 50s with longish gray hair, a sizable belly, and camouflage pants. He gives his name only as "Bowreeguard," making sure that's how I spell it. He says preparation was a fact of life for his family during winters in "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire.
Bowreeguard worked in the explosives industry there, and he and his friends were a hard-working, gun-toting bunch. In the '90s — when survivalists had been tarnished in the media by characters such as Timothy McVeigh, David Koresh, and Ted Kaczynski — they took some bulldozers out to the deep country and excavated a "fire base," where they buried nine school buses to form a semi-underground bunker. Or so Bowreeguard says — he won't tell where the compound is, and he doesn't have photographs.
They got a friend to drill a well in the middle of the bunker. They piled up food, communications lines, and many gallons of water. And on the evening of December 31, 1999, he and dozens of his cohorts gathered for the end. If not fireballs, they expected at least a total breakdown in communications because of the alleged Y2K computer bug. They expected ensuing looting for food and a glimpse of society unhinged.
The clocks flipped placidly to midnight, then 12:01. The only explosions on the news were fireworks. "When it was over and nothing happened, we were so disappointed," he admits. "The next day, we all went back to work."
Bowreeguard says he moved to Florida to work in the transportation industry ten days after the 9/11 attacks. He's been making bulk trips to Costco and wheeling a shopping cart up to his condominium under cover of darkness to build his stockpile. He says he has enough food to last him and his adult son for months, as well as a carefully curated selection of firearms. For drinking water, he keeps an eye on the swimming pool.
"When people ask me why I prepare, I tell them it's because I'm waiting for the zombies," Bowreeguard explains. "Then they laugh it off and don't look at you like you're such a nut-freak." When he gets into conversations with people about total anarchy that could result from a financial breakdown or a nuclear attack by China or North Korea, he tends to make people angry or terrified.
A clammy-looking severed pig's foot sits on a paper plate. A cheerful male voice pipes in: "Hello, prepper nation. This is Dr. Bones, a medical doctor and surgeon for more than 25 years, and together with the lovely Nurse Amy, we host The Doom and Bloom Show." The doctor's hand, filling out a yellowish latex glove, floats into the frame of the YouTube video. The fingers palpate the foot, which compresses like human flesh.
The doctor drapes a sheet of paper over the foot, revealing a single circle of skin. Soon he makes a slice with a #10 scalpel. There is no blood, and he pulls the skin apart to reveal the tendon beneath. He injects the wound with lidocaine, soaking and swelling it. He opens a package of 2-0 silk suture thread, connected to a needle. He uses forceps to lift a flap of skin and drives the suture through.
Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy, a married couple, are two local preppers and teachers with a national reach through an Internet radio show, books they've written, a seminar they cohost, and the YouTube channel (drbonespodcast). As he says in the video, they weren't always preppers: He worked under another name as an obstetrician, delivering hundreds of babies into the cruel world through modern medicine. Amy stood by him as a nurse and midwife during much of his practice.
And like anyone dealing with sensitive matters of life and death, they witnessed their share of distress. When Hurricane Andrew hit, the doctor recalls, he rounded up a few of his late-term pregnant patients in a single hospital room and waited out the storm with them. Through a shaking window, he watched a concrete bus bench topple over and then blow away.
Almost a decade later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, the doctor was delivering a baby by cesarean section at Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The baby was fine, but due to an error by a shell-shocked nurse who had heard of the attacks, the doctor says, a sponge was left inside the patient. The mother brought a malpractice suit against the doctor and the hospital, which ended in a large settlement. The doctor, who retains his medical license in good stead, retired from his practice a few years later and has since become a prominent teacher in the prepping world. Dr. Bones operates mostly on pigs' feet these days, but if he and Amy are right about the way the world is going, this work could be just as important.
Approaching their home in Weston, I stop at the entrance to a lush gated community and hand my driver's license to the unarmed guard. A fountain trickles in front of the gatehouse. I drive around a large cul-de-sac to a house with a giant portico and entryway. Amy answers the door.
She carries herself with the abundant tenderness of her nurse's trade. She looks younger than her age of 46.
"Beautiful neighborhood," I say.
"Yeah. Except we don't know any of our neighbors."
Nurse Amy sounds a little sad about this typical suburban malaise, but their isolation is also intentional. She and her husband have stockpiled a year of food in the garage and maintain an experimental "survival garden" with edible food, curative herbs, and a tilapia pond. They also have enough medical supplies and knowledge to perform virtually any procedure on the fly. Like other preppers, they're worried that if their identities and location were revealed, they would be the target of aggressive zombies in a collapse. They publish under the pen names of Joseph and Amy Alton.
Their latest book, The Doom and Bloom Survival Medicine Handbook, contains 400 pages of surprisingly comprehensive medical advice on everything from burn treatment to insulin shock. The guide contains a hefty disclaimer about how it's illegal to be one's own doctor, but it also imagines a world where that's the only option.
Their life after the hospital is calm and domestic, filled with old knowledge. Amy leads me out to the garden. Under the expansive screened-in pool area, a pepper vine climbs to the ceiling and a pump vibrates in an ornate stucco pond that's filled with tilapia. Tomato plants compete for sunlight nearby. Most things in the garden are edible, she explains, but they wouldn't sustain the couple for long in a true collapse. This garden is mostly for experimentation and instruction through their YouTube videos.
We sit down at the table on the patio where the couple hosts the weekly Doom and Bloom Survival Hour Internet radio show on blogtalkradio.com, speaking with call-in guests and sharing tips for gardening, medicine, and general self-sufficiency. Dr. Bones tells me that their library is filled with 19th-century medical books, from a time when people often had to take care of medical emergencies themselves.
"These things should just be normal," Amy says. "People who don't prep — I hope they're the unusual ones."
The couple seems very normal, actually, right down to their little marital idiosyncrasies. They are affectionately competitive and often cut off one another's sentences. But do they really, truly believe the world as we know it is coming to an end?
"No," Amy says. But, she adds, "a slow economic collapse is what you're seeing now."
"The likelihood of any particular disaster is very small," the doctor interrupts, "but what's the likelihood that none of them will happen in your lifetime?"
He pauses. "Our dream is to die at age 100 with our grandchildren whispering in our ears: 'Hey, Gramps, what the heck are we going to do with all these supplies?'"
When the shit hits the fan, not much will happen, because there will be no electricity to power it. So the filthy fan will just sit there in the rising heat, along with the rest of our old conveniences, rendered useless in a future that most of us have failed to properly imagine.
It might begin with something small and nonviolent: For example, the value of the dollar begins to tumble steadily. You go to the bank to get some cash so you can convert what savings you have into material investments. When you get to the bank, you see a long line of cars at the drive-thru. On the radio, you listen to news of impending war with a Middle Eastern state backed by China, an expanding global competitor in arms and trade. Oil transport routes have been closed off in the conflict. A few of the waiting customers have turned off their engines to save gas.
When it's your turn, you speak into the intercom, asking to withdraw your balance. The teller informs you that the bank has placed a $5,000-per-day limit on withdrawals. They're trying to keep some cash on hand despite its plummeting value. The teller offers you a high-interest loan instead. You drive off angrily. Most people with bank accounts are irate.
"If I really thought the end was right here, I wouldn't be here right now," Petrovich, the prepping evangelist, says as we sit on the patio next to the swimming pool at his house in Hollywood. He has just finished outlining something like the above scenario for me as we drink cold beers and eat rice and beans with gumbo. It's Mardi Gras evening, and he's having some friends and family over. We're sated by the good meal and talking quietly as the light leaves the sky. His mother stands in the doorway, watching as children run and laugh while circling the pool on a bicycle.
Petrovich has a sense of humor about his fire-and-brimstone scenarios. "If there is a zombie invasion, I hope it's the slow ones," he says, refusing to crack a full smile. His favorite TV show is The Walking Dead. He quotes Dr. Strangelove and has a robust library of mass-market paperbacks.
For him, as for most preppers, the thrill is in making oneself stronger. Like any obsession, it's endlessly demanding. The more you prepare, the more you realize how unprepared you are, so it becomes easy not to do anything. "A lot of people just sit there in place and die in place," he says. "Prepping will give you confidence. Besides, look at all the great things I've learned."
If a collapse really happens, Petrovich, who says he's been prepping for 25 years, will call the network of fellow preppers he trusts with his life and family. Then he'll go to the secret location where he keeps food, weapons, gas masks, and everything else he needs for more than a year.
State authorities will activate the Florida Interoperability Network, a coordinated system of state and local radio frequencies that can broadcast signals once the traditional equipment goes down. Local governments will use "several caches of portable radio equipment in various locations throughout the state," according to an official emergency plan, and fire up eight trailers with 100-foot antennas, generators, and broadcasting gear. Volunteers with ARES, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, will fire up their ham radios and tap into a government-sanctioned plan for disseminating information.
What happens over the following weeks will look familiar to Petrovich, who has seen glimpses of humans in crisis during his travels in his 25-year career.
There was Durban, South Africa, in 1997. He knew a decent Indian place and went to get some curry. At once, he faced a riot of angry Zulu nationalists parading down the street, brandishing short spears and clubs. He saw them put a tire around a man's neck and light it on fire. Six or seven police officers around him began shooting randomly into the crowd.
Sierra Leone, 1998: The local police and military were stealing food from aid deliveries, and refugees scrambled viciously for sustenance. Petrovich witnessed what people look like when they're truly hungry.
And there was New Orleans in 2005. For the first time in decades, the nation confronted a nationalized horror of deprivation following Hurricane Katrina. Americans saw the system fail. But, Petrovich explains, "the people in the Lower Ninth Ward knew that somewhere outside the city, the government was still there. Now take that away."
Petrovich is likely to stay in town after a disaster — while the humans around him go into starvation mode, the canals flood with fetid water, and mold takes over untended houses. The preppers in his personal group will have enough gasoline to escape. Petrovich has helped them cache extra fuel and food, stashed in public-storage units and underground, at intervals on an 800-to-1,200-mile path out of Florida. Amid darkness and chaos, skirting burning sugarcane fields and accidents and roadblocks, they'll drive from cache to cache toward a secret inland hiding spot, exhausting the last available remnants of the petroleum age.
The government may well implement an evacuation plan, under a federal policy that was heavily revamped after the botched evacuation of Katrina victims. In short, evacuees will be herded out of town on the same three major routes that South Floridians use every day: I-95, I-75, and the turnpike.
Petrovich knows that if he stays — hell, or if he goes — he'll encounter people with whom he doesn't agree, preppers of a different political stripe. Anarchist hippies, communists, gangsters. He doesn't mind, as long as they're prepared. His response to them during his decades of prepping has been cordial, with a simple acknowledgment:
"I guess I'll see you out there."
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Darkness falls on his patio, and I'm one of the last guests to leave. On my way out, Petrovich hands me two DVDs of zombie-apocalypse movies and two books: one about a complete halt in oil production and the other, One Second After, about an EMP attack launched from container ships. They're some of his favorites, and he wants them back the next time we meet.
He also gives me a tomato seedling he dug up from his garden and transplanted into a 20-ounce McCafé cup, a gift meant to be a small step toward my own self-sufficiency. I drive home with it in the cup holder — a tiny, living thing, the last step in an unbroken chain of growth and germination that stretches back millions of years, persistent against all the odds.