If the End of the World Is Nigh, These South Florida "Preppers" Are Ready
Neal Wiseman can see his entire shop from where he stands, behind the glass display case at Dixie Guns and Ammo, but he can't see the future. Not yet.
That doesn't mean he isn't going to try. Wiseman is in his 30s, with a soldier's buzzcut and the friendly forward momentum of a high-school wrestling coach. A pair of iPhone earbuds frames his face as he greets customers.
It took a little faith for Wiseman to buy the business, tucked into a chainlinked corner of a Pompano Beach public-storage park, with a partner in 2008. Sales are brisk, but the feds are always a distant threat, ready to shut him down for selling a stolen gun or failing to check registrations. The shop relies on hand-painted signs and word of mouth. But Wiseman has bigger things to worry about: He is part of a growing segment of people who believe that modern society is on the verge of collapse.
Some patrons at the shop fit a stereotype of "survivalists": the sometimes-camoed, always-armed fellows who wander in and out of the gun shop and banter about calibers at the counter. But the image of the hostile sociopath hoarding guns under a tarp is an outdated one, and it's not good PR for those in the movement. Survivalism has gone family-friendly, and its proponents call themselves "preppers."
Terrorism, alien attacks, the Mayan Apocalypse — the typical doom-and-gloom scenarios for the end of the world — are on some preppers' minds. But what really scares Wiseman and many of his cohorts is the chance of economic failure. He imagines a worthless U.S. dollar, all financial investments wiped away, and along with them all the rules that govern behavior or property.
Wiseman used to sell residential real estate, but around 2005, he thought he saw home prices begin to flatten. "I got extremely defensive in my positioning," he says. He sold off 14 properties and became a police officer. "I thought things were going to really crash at that time," he says, "so I was wrong. But the situation is progressively getting more volatile."
He leads me into the back office, where he does his bookkeeping, and shuts the door. There are bars over the window. Settling into a swivel chair at his desk, Wiseman unpacks a rifle from a cardboard box and nonchalantly pieces it together, aiming for a moment at a spot on the wall.
If society should collapse, one thing is sure: The glass counter and electronic cash register separating his business from his customers won't count for much. In a scenario in which there is no money, no electricity, no doctors, and no food, the people who haven't prepared — the "zombies," as they're called in the prepper community — will swarm around the preppers who have. Wiseman will need to find a new way of living, taking survival and protection into his own hands, leaving behind his reliance on the value of a dollar or a policeman's word. "For now, I'm still selling shit that other people made," he admits. "I haven't found my place in that society."
Wiseman turns to the computer and pulls up the archives from a Meetup group he moderates — "South Florida Survivalist Network, Region 6," with 333 registered members. They discuss various end-of-the-world scenarios (officially called "shit hits the fan," or SHTF, in prepper lingo). He reads a quote from another prepper, based in Philadelphia: "It always has been and always will be the power of the mind that has the most influence on the course of human events. Practice now, store now, think outside of your comfort zone. Each and every moment that our [electrical and communications] grid is up is a blessing."
We get up to leave, but we're trapped in the office: Not realizing that we were still in the back, Wiseman's partner has closed up the shop and gone home, locking us in. Before I fully register what happened, Wiseman has unsheathed a machete. He uses it to jimmy the lock in a single motion.
His home is on a quiet block on the far side of the Intracoastal Waterway, in the beachside town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Wiseman has rigged it so that pipes connected to the gutters flow into plastic rain-collection barrels. A fledgling vegetable garden blooms by the front door.
"I'm currently prepared to self-sustain for at least a full year, with no contact with the outside world, with a family of four and two dogs," he explains. Inside the garage, he keeps his "preps," or supplies. Instead of kayaks and bicycles, he stores food, fuel, tampons, and toilet paper. He's negotiated with Publix managers for about a dozen buckets of vacuum-packed bulk grains and beans. A shelving unit holds rows of pasta, vegetables, fruit. He's calculated exactly how many rations his family will need to stay alive.
His wife is a lawyer, he says, and she makes good money. She isn't nearly as involved in prepping, but she allows him to spend part of the family budget on items like the tremendous, olive-colored, military-surplus backpack that stands ready to go, bulging with food, weapons, and medical supplies. Wiseman would take it outside to practice walking with it, but he doesn't because he'd probably be stopped by cops. It's not hard to imagine him shouldering the pack, walking alone down the middle of a street with fires raging on both sides and threats in every shadow.
Inside the house, Wiseman greets his two little boys, one of whom is old enough to babble excitedly. He gives candy to the younger boy since Mom isn't home yet and turns on cartoons on the flat-screen television. The children's nanny says goodbye and leaves through the sliding door.
Wiseman surveys his territory. "After the collapse," he says, "I'm going to miss the nanny."
Preppers find a strange optimism getting ready for a doomsday scenario. Like a person moving from a safe childhood to an uncertain adulthood, they feel awakened and realize that no one — not their parents, not teachers, not FEMA — could be counted upon to save them in a true emergency. So they find strength in taking control over a potentially scary future.
Nonpreppers might laugh... until doomsday. Wiseman is realistic about how friendly folks are going to be in a collapse: "You'll have a million predators who own guns and have made no preps. Those are the people to guard against."
As I stand to leave in the driveway, I ask why a prepper like him would live on the barrier island, usually the first place ordered to evacuate during a disaster. He smiles: All he needs is a key to the drawbridge. Once most of his neighbors have evacuated, he'll canoe across the Intracoastal Waterway to the mainland and climb up to the bridge house. There, he'll turn the key and raise the bridge, keeping his family safe from us, the hungry masses, the zombies.
Because the only disasters we know are the ones we have survived, preparing for an unprecedented one is a little like getting a flu vaccine. Every year, a new formulation is cooked up in laboratories and shipped across the world, based on researchers' best predictions of what this year's strain will look like. To arrive at this conclusion, the scientists look at the viruses of the past, how they've responded, mutations they've made. Still, the needle that goes into your arm at Walgreens contains, essentially, just an educated guess.
For many in South Florida, the seminal disaster — the one they relive while they're preparing — is Hurricane Andrew. On August 23, 1992, Wiseman was a student at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale. After the Category Five storm rolled in from the Atlantic, he volunteered with the cleanup effort in poor areas of Homestead. "There were dogs running around and live electrical cables in the street," he recalls. "It had never really dawned on me that that could happen."
Nearby in Kendall, Jorge Villa also drew inspiration — and a new career — from the hurricane's aftermath. An exporter with an engineering degree from the University of Miami, he took his pregnant wife and the rest of his family to his warehouse space across from the Tamiami airport as the hurricane arrived. It was a clear, breezy evening. He bolted the roll-down door, and the family laid out sleeping bags. By 1 a.m., he could hear the ventilation fans being ripped off the roof. By 2 a.m., it sounded like a freight train was running over the building. The rooms filled with water. His wife felt like she was going into labor.
When he emerged, devastation was everywhere. Warehouses just like his were gone. Airplanes were scattered. He spent the next seven years of free time devising a shelter that could withstand hurricanes and virtually any other attack. Today, the yard outside the warehouse is filled with 18-ton bunkers: Octagons of white-painted concrete atop thick, square steel legs, they look virtually immovable. In the office, a child's drawing shows one of the UFO-like objects, with the name of his company, U.S. Bunkers, scrawled along the top.
Villa will custom-manufacture one of these units for anywhere from $8,000 to $60,000. Options include beds, built-in toilets, air-conditioning hookups, toxic-gas filtration systems, gun turrets, rocket-propelled-grenade armor, video surveillance, plumbing, and snappy wood trim. Villa says he's sold "a couple of dozen units" since starting manufacturing in 1999. The units are hidden in backyards around the state, away from the prying eyes of neighbors who would seek shelter in a time of need.
The bunkers are geared toward people like the South Florida preppers, who are a remarkably social bunch. I arrive early one Saturday evening in February for the monthly meet-and-greet barbecue at Wiseman's shop. An older man named Mr. Ike grills hamburgers in a parking space while families with children fix up plates and pop sodas under a canopy of camouflage netting.
Wiseman has been running a promotion: Buy 100 rounds of ammo and get an Army-surplus metal ammunition can, a little smaller than a shoebox, for free. Not only can these boxes be used to store bullets or other items but they can also be fashioned into a rudimentary Faraday cage. Wiseman explains: Many preppers fear an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of destructive gamma waves, triggered by a nuclear weapon launched in the sky or by a solar flare. Within minutes, such a pulse could fry our electrical and communications grids and destroy the integrated-circuit chips inside all unshielded electronics. But get one of these boxes, line it with foil, and pop an extra phone or radio inside: instant shield.
Outside the store, I find Chris Petrovich, a 42-year-old Peruvian-American man who wears a rosary underneath his usual tropical shirt. If Wiseman is the social coordinator for the preppers, Petrovich is their diplomat.
His inspiration comes not from a single disaster but from the accretion of scenes that most people in South Florida can spend their lives ignoring. He traveled through the world's poorest countries as a young man working for his father's agricultural consulting firm. The rainbow of stamps in his canceled passport hold horror stories. He doesn't want to go into details, not at first.
Petrovich is also vague when describing his day job. He does business with developing nations from a nondescript office in Hollywood. On the side, he also teaches daylong basic survival classes for a small fee, advertising through the Meetup site. Students often come to him nervous and overwhelmed, Petrovich says. He tells them two things: "Anyone can prepare, and it's not too late." It's like joining a church.
He is intent on showing me that many preppers these days defy the white-male stereotypes and that women in charge of their families' finances are the fastest-growing part of the group. He introduces me to Amy, a wide-eyed National Rifle Association member who recently moved here from California and learned about prepping from friends in the hunting and firearms community. I meet Zee, an African-American police officer in Miami who says she was inspired to prep by the mayhem she sees every day on the poorest streets of South Florida. They're both friendly over burgers and beer but guarded about the preparations they've made. Neither will return my calls later.
I meet a man in his 50s, probably, with longish gray hair, a sizable belly, and camouflage pants. He gives his name only as "Bowreeguard" and tells me that preparation was a fact of life for his family during winters in live-free-or-die New Hampshire.
Bowreeguard worked in the explosives industry there, and he and his friends were a hard-working, gun-toting bunch. In the '90s — when "survivalists" had been tarnished in the media by characters like Timothy McVeigh, David Koresh, and the Unabomber — they took some bulldozers out to the deep country and excavated a "fire base" where they buried four school buses to form a semi-underground bunker. Or so Bowreeguard says: He won't tell where the compound is, and he doesn't have photographs.
They got a friend to drill a well in the middle of the bunker. They piled up food, communications lines, many gallons of water. And on the evening of December 31, 1999, Bowreeguard and dozens of his cohorts gathered for the end. If not fireballs, they expected at least a total breakdown in communications because of the alleged Y2K computer bug. They expected ensuing looting for food and a glimpse of society unhinged.
The clocks flipped placidly to 12:00, then 12:01. The only explosions on the news were fireworks. "When it was over and nothing happened, we were so disappointed," admits Bowreeguard. "The next day, we all went back to work."
Bowreeguard says he moved to Florida to work in the transportation industry ten days after the 9/11 attacks. He's been making bulk trips to Costco and wheeling a grocery cart up to his condominium under cover of darkness. He says he has enough food to last him and his adult son for months, as well as a carefully curated selection of firearms. For drinking water, he keeps an eye on the swimming pool.
"When people ask me why I prepare, I tell them it's because I'm waiting for the zombies," explains Bowreeguard. "Then they laugh it off and don't look at you like you're such a nutfreak." When he gets in conversations with people about other possibilities — the total anarchy that could result from a financial breakdown or a nuclear attack by China or North Korea — he tends to make people angry or terrified. Zombies, it turns out, are easier to contemplate.
A clammy-looking severed pig's foot sits on a paper plate. A cheerful male voice pipes in: "Hello, prepper nation. This is Dr. Bones, a medical doctor and surgeon for over 25 years, and together with the lovely Nurse Amy, we host the Doom and Bloom Show." The doctor's hand, filling out a yellowish latex glove, floats into the frame of the YouTube video. The fingers palpate the foot, which compresses like human flesh.
The doctor drapes a sheet of paper over the foot, revealing a single circle of skin. Soon he makes a slice with a number-ten blade. There is no blood, and he pulls the skin apart to reveal the tendon beneath. He injects the wound with lidocaine, soaking and swelling it. He opens a package of 2-0 silk suture thread, connected to a needle. He uses forceps to lift a flap of skin and drives the suture through.
Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy, a married couple, are two local preppers and teachers with a national reach through their internet radio show, their books, a seminar they cohost, and the YouTube channel (drbonespodcast). As he says in the video, they weren't always preppers: Dr. Bones, who is 58, worked under another name as an obstetrician, delivering hundreds of babies into the cruel world through modern medicine. Amy, his wife, stood by him as a nurse and midwife through much of his practice.
And like anyone dealing with sensitive matters of life and death, they witnessed their share of distress. When Hurricane Andrew hit, recalls the doctor, he rounded up a few of his late-term pregnant women in a single hospital room and waited out the storm with them. Through a shaking window, he watched a concrete bus bench topple over, then blow away.
Almost a decade later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, the doctor was delivering a baby by cesarean section at Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The baby was fine, but due to an error by a shell-shocked nurse who had heard of the attacks, the doctor says, a sponge was left inside the patient. The mother brought a malpractice suit against the doctor and the hospital, which ended in a large settlement. The doctor, who retains his medical license in good stead, retired from his practice a few years later and has since become a prominent teacher in the prepping world. Dr. Bones operates mostly on pigs' feet these days, but if he and Amy are right about the way the world is going, this work could be just as important.
Approaching their home in Weston, I stop at the entrance to a lush, gated community and hand my driver's license to the unarmed guard. A fountain trickles in front of the gatehouse. I drive around a large cul-de-sac to a house with a giant portico and entryway. Amy answers the door.
She carries herself with the abundant tenderness of her nurse's trade and looks younger than her age of 46.
"Beautiful neighborhood," I say.
"Yeah. Except we don't know any of our neighbors."
Nurse Amy sounds a little sad about this typical suburban malaise, but her isolation is also intentional. She and her husband have stockpiled a year of food in the garage and maintain an experimental "survival garden" with edible food, curative herbs, and a tilapia pond. They also have enough medical supplies and knowledge to perform virtually any procedure on the fly. Like other preppers, they say they're worried that if their identities and location got out, they would be the target of aggressive zombies in a collapse. They publish under the pen names of Joseph and Amy Alton.
Their latest book, The Doom and Bloom Guide to Survival Medicine, contains 400 pages of comprehensive medical advice on everything from burn treatment to insulin shock, anticipating a world without doctors or functioning hospitals. The book contains a hefty disclaimer about how it's illegal to be one's own doctor but also imagines a world where that's the only option.
Their life now is calm and domestic, filled with old knowledge. Amy leads me out into the garden. Under the expansive screened-in pool area, a pepper vine climbs to the ceiling, and a pump vibrates in an ornate stucco pond that's filled with (edible) tilapia. Tomato plants compete for sunlight nearby. Most things in the garden are edible, explains Amy, but they wouldn't sustain the couple for long in a true collapse. This garden is mostly for experimentation and instruction through their YouTube videos.
We sit at the table on the patio where the couple host their weekly Doom and Bloom Survival Hour internet radio show on blogtalkradio.com, talking to call-in guests and sharing tips for gardening, medicine, and general self-sufficiency. Dr. Bones tells me that their library is filled with 19th-century medical books, from a time when people often had to take care of medical emergencies themselves.
"These things should just be normal," Amy says. "People who don't prep — I hope they're the unusual ones."
The couple seem very normal, right down to their little marital idiosyncrasies. They are affectionately competitive, and often cut off each others' sentences. But do they really, truly believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end?
"No," says Amy. But, she adds, "a slow economic collapse is what you're seeing now."
"The likelihood of any particular disaster is very small," the doctor interrupts, "but what's the likelihood that none of them will happen in your lifetime?"
He pauses. "Our dream is to die at age 100 with our grandchildren whispering in our ears, 'Hey Gramps, what the heck are we going to do with all these supplies?' "
When the shit hits the fan, not much will happen, because there will be no electricity to power the fan. So the filthy fan will just sit there in the rising heat, along with the rest of our old conveniences, rendered useless in a future that most of us have failed to properly imagine.
It might begin with something small and nonviolent: For example, the value of the dollar starts to tumble steadily. You go to the bank to get some cash, so you can convert what savings you have into material investments. When you get to the bank, you see a long line of cars at the drive-through. On the radio, you listen to news of impending war with a Middle Eastern state backed by China, an expanding global competitor in arms and trade. Oil transport routes have been closed off in the conflict. A few of the waiting customers have turned off their ignitions to save gas and must fire up the engine to advance a space in line.
When it's your turn, you speak into the intercom, asking to withdraw your balance. The teller informs you that the bank has placed a $5,000-per-day limit on withdrawals. They're trying to keep some cash on hand despite its plummeting value. The teller offers you a high-interest loan instead. You drive off, angry. Most people with bank accounts are angry.
Prepping, by now, looks like it would have been a good idea. You think to buy something tangible to halt the dissolution of your money. Water, food, mail-order gold while it's still available. As everyone around the country trades in money for things, prices go up and inflation quickens. Global markets are thrown into panic. The United States dollar is no longer the backbone of the world economy. Migrant agricultural workers stop coming across the border. Farmers stockpile their harvests. Factories stop producing. Businesses that still have goods to sell stop accepting the dollar in favor of other currencies, and its value plummets further.
Companies that remain open have to pay employees daily, because nobody will wait for a paycheck that's declined in value. This spurs more layoffs. Fewer people working means fewer people paying taxes. Emergency medical, police, and fire departments have to cut back, consolidating their services and selling off vehicles. Local governments go into crisis mode, hiring a single overworked manager and laying off their officials. Calls for help take longer to be answered. Fires burn hotter. Neighbors are focused on their own self-preservation.
Then, sensing weakness, emboldened by international economic troubles, an enemy decides to strike. During a series of routine rolling blackouts triggered by high energy costs, a foreign government launches a series of nuclear missiles from container ships into the atmosphere above middle America. By the time the electromagnetic pulses of harmful gamma waves make it to our homes and offices, we have only the faintest clue that something's wrong. Then the radiation knocks out the power grid, communications wires, and every unshielded silicon chip from Nova Scotia to northern Mexico.
And then it's dark.
The first scrounging will be like that of mice in the night: distant, annoying, but nonthreatening. News of looters will spread by word of mouth; gunshots may ring out down the street. Families, even the least prepared, will stay close and take cover.
Bowreeguard will tuck a gun in his waistband and tiptoe down to the swimming pool. Wiseman will navigate by Maglite the garage he's committed to memory and cross the Intracoastal to raise the drawbridge, if state transportation officials haven't yet managed to take control of the bridge as planned. Joe and Amy sit in their fruit- and tilapia-filled pool room looking for signs of commotion from across the lagoon.
"If I really thought the end was right here, I wouldn't be here right now," says Petrovich, the prepping evangelist, as we sit on a porch next to the swimming pool at his house in Hollywood. He's just finished outlining the above scenario for me as we drink cold beers and eat rice and beans with gumbo. It's Mardi Gras evening, and he's having some friends and family over. We're sated by the good meal, talking quietly as the light leaves the sky. His mother stands in the doorway, watching as children run and laugh and circle the pool on a bicycle.
Petrovich has a sense of humor about his fire-and-brimstone scenarios. "If there is a zombie invasion, I hope it's the slow ones," he says, refusing to crack a full smile. His favorite TV show is The Walking Dead. He quotes Dr. Strangelove and has a robust library of mass-market paperbacks.
For him, as for most preppers, the thrill is in making oneself stronger. "A lot of people just sit there in place and die in place," he says. "Prepping will give you confidence. Besides, look at all the great things I've learned."
If a collapse should really happen here, Petrovich (who says he's been prepping for 25 years) will call the network of fellow preppers he trusts with his life and family. Then he'll go to the secret location where he keeps food, weapons, and gas masks.
State authorities will activate the Florida Interoperability Network, a coordinated system of state and local radio frequencies that can broadcast signals once the traditional equipment goes down. Local governments will use "several caches of portable radio equipment in various locations throughout the state," according to an official emergency plan, and fire up eight trailers with 100-foot antennas, generators, and broadcasting gear. Volunteers with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service will get on their ham radios and tap into a government-sanctioned plan for disseminating information.
What happens over the following weeks will look familiar to Petrovich, who has seen glimpses of humans in crisis during his travels.
In Durban, South Africa, 1997, he saw a riot of angry Zulu rebels coming down the street, brandishing short spears and clubs. One man slit another man's throat. Six or seven police officers started shooting randomly into the crowd.
Sierra Leone, 1998. The local police and military were stealing food from aid deliveries, and refugees scrambled viciously for sustenance. Petrovich realized what people look like when they're truly hungry.
New Orleans, 2005. America confronted, for the first time in decades, the horror of deprivation. People made homeless and destitute by Hurricane Katrina scavenged for food and shelter while emergency-management plans failed. Petrovich points out: "The people in the Lower Ninth Ward knew that somewhere outside the city, the government was still there. Now take that away."
Petrovich is likely to stay in town after a disaster, while the humans around him go into starvation mode, the canals flood with fetid water, and mold takes over untended houses. The preppers in his personal group will have enough gasoline to escape. Petrovich has helped them cache extra fuel and food, stashed in public-storage units and underground, at intervals on an 800- to 1,200-mile path out of the state. Amid darkness and chaos, skirting burning sugarcane and accidents and roadblocks, they'll drive from cache to cache toward a secret inland hiding spot, exhausting the last available remnants of the petroleum age.
The government may try to implement an evacuation plan, under a federal policy that was heavily revamped after the botched evacuation of Katrina victims. In short, evacuees will be corralled out of town on the same three major routes we use every day: I-595, I-95, and the turnpike.
Petrovich knows that if he stays — hell, if he goes — he'll encounter people he doesn't agree with, preppers of a different political stripe. Anarchist hippies, communists, gangsters. He doesn't mind, as long as they're prepared. His response to them during his decades of prepping has been cordial, with a simple acknowledgment:
"I guess I'll see you out there."
Darkness falls on his patio, and I'm one of the last guests to leave. On my way out of the house, Petrovich hands me two DVDs of zombie-apocalypse movies and two books: one about a complete halt in oil production and the other, One Second After, about an EMP attack launched from container ships. They're some of his favorites, and he wants them back the next time we meet.
He also hands me a tomato seedling he dug up from his garden and transplanted into a 20-ounce McCafé cup, a gift meant to be a small step toward my own self-sufficiency. I drive home with it in the cup holder: a tiny, living thing, the last step in an unbroken chain of growth and survival that stretches back millions of years, persistent against all the odds.
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