A Prepper’s World

A Prepper’s World

A look into the curiously commonsense world of disaster preparedness
By Sarah Rose Miller

When Hurricane Sandy swept in from the Atlantic Ocean in October, government officials seemed ready to deal with the aftermath—a far cry from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when local, state, and federal government stumbled to respond to the devastation in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Even so, Sandy left hundreds of thousands without power for more than a week as temperatures dipped into the 30s, and tens of thousands of residents remained homeless. If Katrina was a primer in government inefficiency, Sandy may be a follow-up lesson in how even when the government is better prepared, people are still vulnerable to the consequences of devastating events.

Voices in the wilderness

Members of the national disaster preparedness advocacy group Zombie Squad have been active on the group’s online forum discussing Sandy and how they are coping with the storm’s effects as they assist others. One member, “jor-el,” writes about helping set up a shelter in Queens and standing guard against looters outside a fire station in the Rockaways. Another forum member who goes by “Pilsung” comments, “Right now we’re voices in the wilderness, but for millions who are suffering through Sandy’s aftermath we may suddenly seem prescient.”

The Zombie Squad is devoted to being able to tackle emergency situations when they arise. As Nicholas O’Bryan, a Minneapolis man who is active in disaster preparedness efforts, puts it, “If you’re ready to survive shambling hordes of the undead, you’re ready to survive anything else.” The squad assists people in disaster situations and conducts blood drives and fundraising for disaster relief charities, but their primary focus is educating people to be prepared for disasters on an individual level, also known as “prepping.”

“That’s really all prepping is about, is being prepared,” says “Joe Prepper,” who asked to be called by his prepping alias. Joe looks like your typical downtown suit-and-tie kind of guy, middle-aged, at ease as he eats his tater tots and Reuben sandwich. “I am actually a boring guy,” he says. “I drive a computer for a living.” Joe also happens to stock about three months worth of food, is both a Red Cross and a National Rifle Association instructor, and has EMT training. He also has a plan for where he will go, outside of the Twin Cities, should the situation ever require it. (In the world of prepping, such a place is known as a bug-out location. If preppers don’t own their own bug-out location, most will at least have a connection to someone who does.) Still on his prepping to-do list is acquiring a second language, perhaps Hmong or Somali. In his view, former refugees in Minnesota’s Hmong and Somali communities are likely to have good ideas and resources for surviving in challenging situations, because so many of them have faced greater hardships than your average native Minnesotan.

Prep a little, prep a lot

Prepping runs the gamut. “There is no statutory minimum or maximum to call yourself a prepper,” O’Bryan says. There are those who keep a case of meals, ready-to-eat (MREs) and a couple of jugs of water and consider themselves prepared. Others buy land, bury shipping containers for shelter, reserve enough food and water to last a year or more, and stockpile guns and ammunition both for hunting and protection. O’Bryan himself has supplies (“I don’t have a whole room, but I have enough…”) but puts more stock in planning and skills, which he has had ample opportunity to see the value of in his 15 years doing risk assessment for people traveling overseas.

Most preppers consider numerous scenarios when planning their preps: natural disasters, pandemics, terrorist attacks, an asteroid impact, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), economic collapse—any of which could become reality. O’Bryan says the range of preparedness can be as simple as being equipped for local weather disasters—a practical attitude in Minnesota, where “we’re covered in snow six months of the year and the other six months we’re dodging tornadoes,” as he puts it—to preparing for TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It).

Contending with natural disasters—something that most people have already experienced—generally tops the prepping list. A woman who asked to go by “Firefly” recounted multiple weather-related disaster experiences: an ice storm in Milbank, S.D., that knocked out power for more than a week; a tornado when she was living in Ham Lake, Minn., which left her and her three daughters without power for days; and an emergency situation where she was temporarily stranded on an island. These experiences reinforced what, for Firefly, was a natural tendency to be prepared. “I grew up in a fairly poor family, and we always gardened, and my mom did canning,” she recalls. “It seems a lot of the things that my grandmother taught me are what the prepper groups call prepping.”

Coming together in the end

To Firefly, prepping is both commonsense and communal. She lives in a town of fewer than 5,000 people west of the Twin Cities and hopes that if the SHTF (S*** Hits The Fan) she and her neighbors will work together to support and protect one another. Her wilderness survival knowledge will allow her to teach community members to forage, and she thinks the preacher down the street could be helpful in uniting the community by delivering messages of cooperation. “That’s the intelligent way of looking at it,” she says, though she acknowledges that not all preppers share her view. “There’s a lot of people who look at it as, ‘I’m just gonna hunker down in my own house, point a gun barrel out the door, and, you know, everybody better fend for themselves.’” She says she has quit a number of online prepper groups because of the “extremely deep paranoia.”

Luckily there are plenty of online organizations to choose from. One of the largest, the American Prepper Network, boasts more than 23,000 users who discuss everything from how to make your own soap to the best guns for TEOTWAWKI. (“Dreamthinker79” advises owning three types of guns: a .357 revolver for self-defense, a .22LR rifle for small game, and a .308 rifle for large game.) The “Homestead Survival” page on Facebook, a popular prepper resource for information on emergency preparedness and self-sufficiency, has nearly 275,000 “likes.” James Wesley Rawles, New York Times bestselling author of the Patriots novel series, writes a survival blog, which claims to receive over 300,000 unique hits per week. Prepper Jack Spirko offers a weekly online radio podcast at his website, the Survival Podcast. His motto? “Helping You Live A Better Life, If Times Get Tough Or Even If They Don’t.”

Crazy, clever…or both?

After Y2K, survivalists (the more common term at the time) became something of a societal joke. “A lot of folks have the misconception about the prepper community that they’re nut jobs, who live in the woods and have 18 children, and cart them around in the school bus,” O’Bryan says. “I would like to thank the National Geographic channel and Doomsday Preppers for that great image,” he laughs. “But these are people who are probably your friends, neighbors….”

Disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Fukushima nuclear crisis have sparked a revival in the preparedness movement. While there is still a definite fringe aspect to prepping, and “tin foil hats” (as moderate preppers affectionately term the more paranoid end of the spectrum) abound, preppers can point to numerous mega disasters to underscore that their approach is simply smart and sensible—like buying home insurance.

In fact, several government agencies have recommended that average citizens engage in emergency preparedness. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a 204-page guide titled, “Are You Ready?” At the companion website, ready.gov, citizens are encouraged to prepare for natural disasters, pandemics, nuclear accidents, and terrorist attacks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has joined the lurching zombie apocalypse parade with a tongue-in-cheek campaign urging Americans to prepare for an attack of the walking dead, which will conveniently ready them for a pandemic, too. All this has lent prepping a certain legitimacy that it previously lacked.

Ready for anything

Whatever group you’re a part of, whatever disasters you’re preparing for, there are certain items that almost every prepper considers essential. Food, water, guns and ammunition, medical supplies, a bug-out location, a bug-out bag…. O’Bryan points to his backpack. “You’ll notice most of the people who talk about their bug-out bag—it’s this huge, military-esque backpack,” he says. “This is mine.” He unzips his run-of-the-mill backpack and pulls out a small first aid kit. “If somebody were to get hit by a car out on the street here, I actually have everything I would need until EMS arrives,” he says. Most people fill their bug-out bags with enough food, water, and other resources to survive for 72 hours. O’Bryan also carries his laptop in his bag, because it serves as his everyday tote.

“And then, of course, I always carry one of these,” O’Bryan says. He lifts out a Ty beanie baby: Ringo, a raccoon. O’Bryan grins, but he is utterly serious. When he went to New Orleans as part of a post-Katrina aid effort, he stopped at a truck stop along the way and bought its entire inventory of stuffed animals. He uses the plush toys to calm children in an emergency. “If you hand this to a child and go, ‘This is my friend and he’s really scared. Will you take care of him for me?’ it gives them something to do, and it gives them a sense of responsibility,” O’Bryan explains. In prepping, it can be the big things (the underground bunker, the shelves full of ammunition) that count . . . or it can be the little things, like a soft brown raccoon.