Doomsday preppers get ready to confront the end

7:14 AM, Nov 16, 2012   |    comments
Tim Ralston looks over a rifle while standing next to his trailer packed with food and supplies at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home. Ralston, who has been featured on the 'Doomsday Preppers' reality TV show, believes in preparing for a disaster. / Tom Tingle / Gannett
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Chuck Raasch, USA TODAY and Heidi Hall, The Tennessean

Joseph Reilly isn't sure which major disaster will cut him off from life's necessities, but he's ready for it.

The Nashville musician keeps a month's worth of food on hand. Filters to turn river water into drinking water. Camping supplies so he can flee the city and live off the land.

And a couple of handguns in case anyone tries to take the rest of it away.

"We live in a pretty fragile society, if you think about it," he said. "I'm not worried about a specific doomsday circumstance, but I'm prepared for anything that could happen."

Reilly and thousands like him are part of a burgeoning "prepper" movement that believes preparing for the end of civilization is more rational than ridiculing those who do. Once viewed largely as a practice by survivalists on the fringe, prepping has achieved cohesion and community in the Internet age through best-selling writers, bloggers, risk assessors, conspiracy theorists and companies that cater to preppers' needs.

Nashville is hosting the National Preppers and Survivalists Expo on March 16-17 at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Jacksonville, Fla.-based organizer Ray McCreary said choosing the city for his event was a no-brainer. It's close to other major metropolitan areas, and Tennessee is home to a large prepper movement.

The expo's celebrity guest is Dennis McClung of "Doomsday Preppers," a reality show on the National Geographic Channel. He will speak both days.

"The TV show focuses on the extreme, the worst-case scenario," McCreary said. "But right now, in New York and New Jersey, people are still without power (from Hurricane Sandy), waiting in line four to eight hours for gas.

"We're showing the practical approach."

Exhibitors offering survival gear and firearms will pay $695 or more to participate, and McCreary expects to sell out of slots by the end of January.

Practice isn't new

Tennessee preppers take to message boards and meet-up groups to find like-minded people to purchase property with them or to share tips on readying for disaster. They talk about the skills they bring for post-apocalyptic, communal living.

The number of preppers here and nationwide is unknown, but a poll done for National Geographic Channel in September indicated that 28 percent of Americans knew one.

Getting ready for the end is not new, of course, nor strictly American. Doomsday prophets have been around as long as civilization. During the Cold War, people across the nation dug fallout shelters, and the federal government was the ultimate prepper.

One of that era's icons remains: a massive underground bunker designed to protect all 535 members of Congress and their aides against nuclear war. Dug into the Allegheny Mountains at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., it once had 75,000 gallons of water, a power system, medical and food services, and 30-ton blast doors.

After its cover was blown by a story in The Washington Post in 1992, the bunker was abandoned by the government as an emergency destination.

Almost 10 years later, the chaos of 9/11 prompted further calls for doomsday contingencies to protect the nation's leaders and sustain the government.

Troubling scenarios

John Hoopes, a University of Kansas anthropologist and archaeologist, said it's prudent to prepare for storms or power outages, but he urges perspective on the prepper movement. There have always been storms and earthquakes and threats from the unknown, he says - they just weren't tweeted in real time.

Kenneth Rose, a University of California-Chico professor and author of "One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture," says the prepper movement raises "neighbor versus neighbor" scenarios and "troubling class issues."

"Will the well-to-do only be able to afford these types of activities?" he asked.

Preppers don't buy that. Jay Blevins, a former deputy sheriff and SWAT officer in Berryville, Va., says social unrest from a financial meltdown could be devastating. He has formed a prepper network of family and friends, people with varying skills such as knife making. They'd help one another in such a calamity.

He says his Christian faith drives him to help others prepare, and although he is not certain the end is near, he thinks getting prepared is an act of personal responsibility.

"We watch and pray," he said.

Survivalist industry

A veritable industry has sprung up around the prepper movement. James Rawles, author of the nonfiction book "How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It" and a pair of best-selling novels on survival, says 130,000 people regularly read his survivalblog.com, where he and numerous contributors provide tips on how to prepare. The former Army intelligence officer has 40 advertisers selling everything from seeds to silver, and 30 more advertisers on a waiting list.

"It's a growing recognition we live in a very fragile, very interdependent society, with long chains of supply and an increasing dependence on the power grid," said Rawles, who wouldn't tell where he lives.

For Reilly, the Nashville musician, the key is to be as prepared as possible without going too far, as he admits some do.

"If it's all you talk about or think about, it's taking over your life before it happens," he said. "But you can't just wait for the government to save you if there's an emergency."

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