When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, Charles realized he needed to prep for a more immediate threat. While Manhattan emerged primarily unscathed, the devastation wrought across the coast of New Jersey, Staten Island, and Queens struck him. The city was able to recover quickly, but if something more catastrophic hit next time, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he wasn't so sure.
This past September, Wise Company’s products proved lifesaving in a very urgent sense: Strapped for rations following the double whammy of Harvey in Texas and Irma in South Florida, FEMA placed an order for 2 million servings of food to relieve Maria’s victims in Puerto Rico. On a typical day, though, its selection of 72-hour, one-week, and one-month survival kits, packaged in boxes that can easily fit under a bed, seems more geared toward everyday Americans looking to prepare for the unknown.
Curt Rankin—a Lebanon entrepreneur with the demeanor and looks of Mike Huckabee before he got fat—bought Gardening Revolution in December. In his 50s, Rankin is a kid relishing in his father’s approval as Pense, inside the Strafford cabin, explains why Rankin seemed like the best candidate to keep the company going. The prodigal son is already reworking the website and devising marketing schemes to maintain the momentum, and Pense now teaches missionaries, who will take his raised-bed system across the globe.
Huffman has been a frequent attendee at Burning Man, the annual, clothing-optional festival in the Nevada desert, where artists mingle with moguls. He fell in love with one of its core principles, “radical self-reliance,” which he takes to mean “happy to help others, but not wanting to require others.” (Among survivalists, or “preppers,” as some call themselves, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, stands for “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful Aid.”) Huffman has calculated that, in the event of a disaster, he would seek out some form of community: “Being around other people is a good thing. I also have this somewhat egotistical view that I’m a pretty good leader. I will probably be in charge, or at least not a slave, when push comes to shove.”
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ARE YOU PREPARED? The end of the world didn’t come for Judgement Day followers who expected the rapture in May 2011. But who are these people who continuously fear the end of the world and obsessively prepare themselves and their loved ones for the worst? Meet "preppers" including one man who built an underground bunker where he and his family can retreat during a nuclear attack.
One measure of survivalism’s spread is that some people are starting to speak out against it. Max Levchin, a founder of PayPal and of Affirm, a lending startup, told me, “It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.”
After 9/11, my dad filled a duffel bag with some energy bars, a couple gallons of water, some penicillin, and a map. Amid scaremongering headlines about imminent anthrax and “dirty bomb” attacks in the city, he wanted to have some supplies on hand in case we needed to get out of Brooklyn fast. Were he to assemble such a bag today, he’d likely stumble on a number of companies promising a more wholesale brand of disaster preparedness: a box full of shelf-stable freeze-dried meals, to be revived from their dessicated state with the addition of boiled water.
To me, the best option is to store emergency food. How much? If you have none, store enough for a few days. If you have enough for a few days, get enough for a week. How much you store depends on what time frame you think you're at risk for having to be completely independent. The early settlers of the southwest liked to store enough food for a whole year and still do to this day!
In recent years, survivalism has been edging deeper into mainstream culture. In 2012, National Geographic Channel launched “Doomsday Preppers,” a reality show featuring a series of Americans bracing for what they called S.H.T.F. (when the “shit hits the fan”). The première drew more than four million viewers, and, by the end of the first season, it was the most popular show in the channel’s history. A survey commissioned by National Geographic found that forty per cent of Americans believed that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter was a wiser investment than a 401(k). Online, the prepper discussions run from folksy (“A Mom’s Guide to Preparing for Civil Unrest”) to grim (“How to Eat a Pine Tree to Survive”).
He points to the cash registers over his left shoulder. “I’ll bet you there’s not one thing you bought today that didn’t use electricity in the transaction,” he says. Before Y2K, Finelli says he owned a small computer manufacturing company and personally upgraded 8,000 operating systems so the dates would roll over from 1999 to 2000. “Because they wouldn’t,” he says. “There was a defect. I know that computer systems are frail because I built them.” He says a widespread power outage would cripple us—no electricity, no trading debt portfolios, no buying wholesale taquitos on credit.
When I visited Johnson, not long ago, at his office on Park Avenue South, he described himself as an accidental student of civic anxiety. He grew up outside Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Park, the son of a doctor, and he watched his father’s generation experience the fracturing of Detroit. “What I’m seeing now in New York City is sort of like old music coming back,” he said. “These are friends of mine. I used to live in Belle Haven, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Louis Bacon, Paul Tudor Jones, and Ray Dalio”—hedge-fund managers—“were all within fifty yards of me. From my own career, I would just talk to people. More and more were saying, ‘You’ve got to have a private plane. You have to assure that the pilot’s family will be taken care of, too. They have to be on the plane.’ ”
There are other ways to absorb the anxieties of our time. “If I had a billion dollars, I wouldn’t buy a bunker,” Elli Kaplan, the C.E.O. of the digital health startup Neurotrack, told me. “I would reinvest in civil society and civil innovation. My view is you figure out even smarter ways to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.” Kaplan, who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, was appalled by Trump’s victory, but said that it galvanized her in a different way: “Even in my deepest fear, I say, ‘Our union is stronger than this.’ ”
And why shouldn’t they? National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers doesn’t exactly help viewers understand the plight of the average prepper, the one without 60 guns, scuba diving equipment, a bunker and an armored personnel carrier. “I knew going into it that they would try to sensationalize a lot of stuff,” says Allen, a Springfield, Missouri survivalist who refused to divulge his last name; he appeared on the show in 2012 showing off his aquaponics setup. “If Doomsday Preppers had shown typical preppers on a typical day, it would’ve been pretty boring.”
Those impulses are not as contradictory as they seem. Technology rewards the ability to imagine wildly different futures, Roy Bahat, the head of Bloomberg Beta, a San Francisco-based venture-capital firm, told me. “When you do that, it’s pretty common that you take things ad infinitum, and that leads you to utopias and dystopias,” he said. It can inspire radical optimism—such as the cryonics movement, which calls for freezing bodies at death in the hope that science will one day revive them—or bleak scenarios. Tim Chang, the venture capitalist who keeps his bags packed, told me, “My current state of mind is oscillating between optimism and sheer terror.”
Car electricity runs on direct current, but almost everything else is alternating current. What you need: an inverter. Some cars have them built in, but you can get one at a store for less than $40. Use the clamps to attach the inverter directly to the terminals on your car battery. Let the car run at idle and you have 110-volt AC power for as long as you have gas. With a 300-watt inverter, you'll have enough amps to run a laptop or even a television.