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There are two scenarios everyone—prepper or not—should count on: losing power and being stranded in your car. I’m a big believer in backup power. I keep an emergency power supply plugged into an outlet in my apartment; it has a trickle charger so I can forget about it until my block goes dark. In my car, I keep extra blankets, a LifeStraw portable water filter, lighters, and Millennium energy bars. It’s not the Four Seasons, but at least my family will be able to survive 48 hours in our Honda Pilot. One thing to consider: You need to be with your gear when a disaster strikes. When Sandy hit in 2012, our whole family was in Connecticut while all my gear was in Manhattan. My wife had a good laugh. These days, my everyday bag is a waterproof Showers Pass backpack where I stash a small set of screwdrivers, multitool, glass breaker, three flashlights that use the same type of batteries, and a spool of Kevlar thread, all sorted in plastic bags. There’s a spoon and fork in there, too, because if I have to eat an MRE for dinner, I might as well look civilized while I do it.—Wylie Dufresne, Michelin-starred Chef, Owner Of Du’s Donuts, Prepper
How many wealthy Americans are really making preparations for a catastrophe? It’s hard to know exactly; a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. (“Anonymity is priceless,” one hedge-fund manager told me, declining an interview.) Sometimes the topic emerges in unexpected ways. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a prominent investor, recalls telling a friend that he was thinking of visiting New Zealand. “Oh, are you going to get apocalypse insurance?” the friend asked. “I’m, like, Huh?” Hoffman told me. New Zealand, he discovered, is a favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm. Hoffman said, “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more. Once you’ve done the Masonic handshake, they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they’re nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.’ ”
Hall led me through the garage, down a ramp, and into a lounge, with a stone fireplace, a dining area, and a kitchen to one side. It had the feel of a ski condo without windows: pool table, stainless-steel appliances, leather couches. To maximize space, Hall took ideas from cruise-ship design. We were accompanied by Mark Menosky, an engineer who manages day-to-day operations. While they fixed dinner—steak, baked potatoes, and salad—Hall said that the hardest part of the project was sustaining life underground. He studied how to avoid depression (add more lights), prevent cliques (rotate chores), and simulate life aboveground. The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. “windows” that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park. “All four seasons, day and night,” Menosky said. “She wanted the sounds, the taxis and the honking horns.”
“It may be necessary to prepare defences against the unwelcome attentions of your neighbours,” read one article, before describing the process of obtaining a British firearms licence. Another feature, on how to manage food supplies, pointed out that one month after seeking refuge, shortages in even the best-stocked shelters would become apparent. But that would just have to be dealt with, as “the maintenance of law and order, burial of the dead, etc… will almost certainly take priority.”
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Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal. Philanthropy in America is still three times as large, as a share of G.D.P., as philanthropy in the next closest country, the United Kingdom. But it is now accompanied by a gesture of surrender, a quiet disinvestment by some of America’s most successful and powerful people. Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefitted, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair.
Survivalists' concerns and preparations have changed over the years. During the 1970s, fears were economic collapse, hyperinflation, and famine. Preparations included food storage and survival retreats in the country which could be farmed. Some survivalists stockpiled precious metals and barterable goods (such as common-caliber ammunition) because they assumed that paper currency would become worthless. During the early 1980s, nuclear war became a common fear, and some survivalists constructed fallout shelters.
The magazine’s issues, many of which are retained at the British Library in London, present a very clear picture of what its makers thought the future looked like. A family dressed in protective suits and gas masks, outside an English country house, was featured on the cover of the first edition. A later issue showed a happy mother tending her baby – in a fallout shelter. And another presented huge missiles waiting to be launched somewhere in the middle of decimated nuclear waste. The surroundings are red and black. On the horizon, a mushroom cloud glows.
Finelli’s not from around here; an adopted Midwestern politeness hardly masks direct, fast-thinking, faster-talking East Coast roots, although he won’t tell me where he’s from exactly. He’s guarded like that. He won’t say where he went to college, only that he graduated from a prestigious undergraduate program and then got an MBA; nor will he say where he worked after, only that he started a company on the West Coast to manufacture satellite communications receivers before a Japanese competitor threatened to kill him. He will say he knows the moon landing was faked. In 1982, he moved back east from California and began designing computer systems for a Fortune 100 credit card company.
Before fire season, move combustibles away from your house. Fences and dry vegetation give fires a place to grow, says Jonathan Cox at Cal Fire, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Hosing down your house won’t help much, either, he says: “The way a lot of these homes burn is through something called ember cast, when embers from the fire fly over and drop little fires everywhere. With a huge ember cast, hosing down your house doesn’t do much.”