Exactly 20 years ago this morning, Jorge Villa opened the rollup door of his warehouse in Kendall and stared out at devastation.
The traumatic experience led him to start U.S. Bunkers, which still sells massive concrete pods in which you can outlive almost anything, for a while. I paid him a visit while working on a story about modern survivalists earlier this year, which featured a brief version of the tale below.
It was a clear, breezy evening when they arrived. 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. He could hear things crash into the walls. His wife felt like she was going into labor.
Calm arrived with the dawn, and Villa opened the door of his warehouse and stared out at devastation. Airplanes were toppled across the runway. Whole warehouses just like his had been destroyed, swept off by the wind. Cars were everywhere. Many lost their homes, and dozens died. For some, the hurricane was a wake-up call, a reminder of how delicately we cling to civilization in this most man-made of places.
Eventually the light was restored, the stores opened, the waste hauled out of sight. Floridians, with the coastal wreckage fresh in their minds, moved en masse to the newly developed inland suburbs, across a manmade levee from billions of gallons of plumbed swampwater. Sooner or later, all the old systems came back online.
But what if they hadn't?
I visit the warehouse in Kendall where Villa waited out the storm. On a window in the office, there's a picture one of his kids drew years ago: An angular, spaceship-like object with little windows, braced on stilts. It looks heavy-duty. Above, in a child's handwriting: U.S. BUNKERS.
After the 1992 storm, Villa spent seven years of free time devising a shelter that, unlike his warehouse, would be certain to withstand a heavy storm or virtually any other attack. Villa figured a foot-thick reinforced cement cocoon could fill a need.
Villa leads me out the back door to a grassy yard that looks like Roswell: his bunkers are everywhere. They're 18 tons each, Villa explains. Octagons of white-painted concrete atop thick, square steel legs, they look virtually immovable, except for the fact that one is tied to a trailer. Anticipating my arrival, Villa has opened the pneumatic stairway hatch. We climb inside.
His company, U.S. Bunkers, 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. You can order one and have it in two months (it takes 30 days for the concrete to dry). It feels like we're inside two Jacuzzis bolted together. It's cool, though the sun has been shining all morning. Sitting on the built-in benches, Villa and I are only a couple of feet apart, but if we lean back into the structure's angled recesses, I can briefly imagine a couple of women and children joining us for an unspecified amount of time.
"It's made of 6,500 PSI concrete," says Villa, "the strongest." His voice echoes between the walls.
Villa says he's sold "a couple dozen units" since starting manufacturing in 1999, mostly to people who have asked him not to disclose their identities or locations. 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. There's one in Oklahoma. Recently, says Villa, business is slow because of the stalled economy, but he's gotten a lot of calls from people worried about financial collapse, as well as the end of the Mayan calendar in December 2012.
Still, it's only a one-room bunker, a temporary refuge at best. We step down from the unit, into the calming sunshine. A tiny plane takes off from the airport and disappears into the sky.