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.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.