They were shocked by 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and they firmly believe the world is coming to an end. To cope with the imminent disaster, some of these preparation enthusiasts (or "preppers") turn their SUVs into armored fortresses while others buy fancy bunkers. Julie Zaugg met one of those so-called "survivalists."
NEW YORK - His name is Tommy DiLallo, and he avoids garbage cans at all cost. "There might be a bomb in it," says the fortysomething, who at this moment is slaloming between commuters to reach the end of the platform. "I always get in the first wagon: I’ve studied train wrecks, and you have a better chance of getting out alive if you are in the first or last wagons," says the former Marine, now working in computer sciences. He is about to return to his home on Long Island, where he dedicates all his free time to manifesting his paranoia.
Tommy DiLallo is among a growing number of Americans who've decided that disaster preparation is a personal calling. And what is The End of the World As We Know It (or TEOTWAWKI within this circle) if not the worst disaster ever?
"What I really fear most is our entire financial system collapsing," says DiLallo, a tall and athletic man with a shaven head. "That would mean civil war, because people wouldn't be able to feed themselves anymore."
The preppers are also bracing themselves for a laundry list of other end-times scenarios: nuclear disasters, earthquakes, electromagnetic pulses that would neutralize the electric system, pandemic diseases, solar storms, asteroids, eruptions of super-volcanoes or even tyranny. They believe that the Armageddon, the final fight between good and evil described in the Bible, is near.
Fortress on wheels
These preppers have developed a range of strategies to handle the uncertainty. "I’m constantly looking out for survival opportunities," says DiLallo, as he points to water tanks atop buildings from his train seat. "There is lots of food and water. You just need to know where to look." He always keeps at hand a black backpack with everything he would need for a three-day period: 2,400-calorie protein bars, water, a first-aid kit, matches, a knife and a poncho for the rain.
His main asset in this survival strategy is his vehicle: an SUV that he has transformed into a fortress on wheels. "I switched to bulletproof glass, modified the seatbelt so that I can take it off faster, and I hid weapons within reach," he says, simultaneously producing a 30-centimeter blade from a hidden spot next to the driver's seat. In the back, he has stashed an assault rifle, two standard rifles and two handguns -- not to mention a breathtaking supply of ammo. "I'm ready to kill to survive, if need be," he says.
Over the last few years, the number of people like DiLallo has grown dramatically in the U.S. By some estimates, there may now be hundreds of thousands of them. "I get a dozen membership applications per week," says Jason Charles, a survivalist in charge of the New York branch of the American Preppers Network.
Tommy DiLallo doesn’t want to be a lone wolf during the rapture. So he recruited a group of about 30 preppers. "Everyone in the group has a special skill that can be useful to the others," says Kevin Urquart, a medic for the team. "We have a cardiologist, an electrician, a water specialist and an ex-Marine."
In the eventuality of a catastrophe, they would go west, far from the city. "We could hunt pigeons, rabbits or turtles, fish, grow vegetables and collect rainwater," says DiLallo. He has a collection of seeds stored in his car, meticulously placed next to the sleeping bags, radios, flashlights, gas masks, compasses and medicine. He estimates all of the gear is roughly worth $20,000.
Premium bunkers for sale
A new industry has arisen to take advantage of the fears of Americans like them. A company called Shelf Reliance offers a pack of dehydrated food for $4,168. Vivos Group sells underground premium bunkers described as "modern Noah's Arks." A place inside one of their two communal bunkers is worth between $35,000 and $85,000.
So why do these survivalists feel the need to try to control what simply cannot be? Sitting in his living room surrounded by survival material, on the top floor of a seedy old Harlem building, Jason Charles carefully picks his words: "I think I’ve always been afraid of something. I grew up in Harlem during the 1980s. There was a fire every day. Even when I was a child, I would carry around a bag with a couple of my toys." He is now a firefighter.
Most survivalists have a story, a specific event that explains why they are the way they are. DiLallo was in the second tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, and in New Orleans when Katrina hit. Kevin Urquart spent a week without electricity, water or heating devices when Hurricane Irene wrecked the coast in 2011, then again for 10 days when Hurricane Sandy arrived in October 2012.
But one event in particular helped seal the movement's powerful anti-government views. "When Katrina destroyed a city forsaken by the government, it was a rallying call for the preppers," says Chad Huddleston. Aton Edwards, a Brooklyn prepper and consultant for survivalists agrees. “We can’t trust the authorities to protect us in case of a tragedy. During Hurricane Sandy, elderly people were left for days at the top of their building without water or food."
The example U.S. survivalists have in mind comes from across the Atlantic. Everyone describes Switzerland as a prepper’s paradise.
"There they have nuclear shelters, an army of militias and homeland defense policy. They are the best equipped to survive a disaster,” says James Wesley Rawles, who writes disaster novels and lives in a ranch in the wild with a three-year food supply. He is the leader of a relocation movement called The American Redoubt, which designated an area in the middle of the U.S. (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming) as a haven for survivalists.