What Jennifer, a self-described prepper who declined to share her last name for security reasons, didn’t anticipate was the sheer force of Maria’s rains and 155 mile per hour winds — and how little the storm shutters would do to protect her home. “I was taking water out of the bedrooms, the living rooms, the hallways,” she says. “The house was flooded.” At one point, a piece of debris flew off a neighbor’s roof and got stuck between the outside wall of Jennifer’s pantry and the storm shutters, ripping off a pair of windows in the process.
Last week our electricity went out for several hrs. We discovered that our oil lamps that had been sitting on the shelf for yrs and yrs, didn’t have oil in them – oops – Not much good with out oil in them. It was cold and snowing, so really didn’t want to walk to the garage (not attached and about 100 ft) to get some. We did have candles and flashlights. We decided we liked using the headlight type of flash light the best – so are picking up a few more. I can make my cell phone into a WiFi spot, other wise there is no connectivity if your system is down. Yes there isn’t much to do if you don’t have TV or your computer – yes we are spoiled. We are lucky that we have a propane heat stove as well as a propane cook stove. So we weren’t cold, and we could have a cup of coffee. Was a good reminder to have things ready.
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It seemed important to know if this all-encompassing negativity was histrionic or appropriate — that is, if the hard-core Preppers I had met were crazy or were, in fact, on to something. Just before the show-and-tell, I came across a news report about Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, whom Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had recently named to lead a commission investigating how ready the state was for another Hurricane Sandy-like emergency. I arranged an interview, figuring that he, if anyone, could answer my question.
Zombie Squads make up a small portion of the overarching prepper movement—people devoted to learning how to survive any disaster, from a house fire to a zombie attack. The movement, says Huddleston, an anthropologist at Saint Louis University and Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, has grown “a ton” in recent years. “Because one, people are afraid of things in the world,” he explains. “And two, I think many people have had experiences with different kinds of small-scale or even large-scale disasters, be it Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, and they see that there is some practical value in knowing a little bit or having a little bit”—such as knowing how to do first aid or having enough food on hand.
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Although he had a cold when we met at his office in Harlem, Dr. Redlener was a soothing presence — bearded, erudite and open to the notion that ordinary people have a central role in emergency preparedness. The government, he told me, reacted decisively after 9/11, establishing the Department of Homeland Security, so why shouldn’t everyday citizens react?
When I started putting together my first survival kit, I just collected whatever weird stuff I could find—like tablets that would protect my thyroid from nuclear fallout. My mindset changed when my first daughter was born. I realized I needed a more practical end-of-the-world plan, with equipment that would be useful for things that might actually happen. Nuclear war is probably not in store for 2018, and if it is, I’ll just open a window. I don’t want to live through that.
What programs like Doomsday Preppers have accomplished, or at least contributed to, is turning sometimes well-informed, sometimes totally unwarranted paranoia into a booming prepper-industrial complex. Each year, swap meets pack hundreds of convention centers and fairgrounds across the nation—they’re like camping shows with a dose of military surplus and hands-on instructional sessions. The September 2017 Kansas City Survival Expo & Gun Show, for instance, had tips on seed saving, “Overcoming 900 Health Diseases” and “A Devastating Street Self-Defense System.” The latter was taught by Norman Cantwell, who inspired Patrick Swayze’s character in Roadhouse. You get the feeling that he and Steven Seagal would be friends.
Another key difference is that the preppers didn't have any specific expectations for a particular disaster that's likely to happen. Some of them lived in flood-prone areas but would invariably mention additional fears like terrorism or outbreaks of new diseases. And for many of them, those risks didn't produce a sense that disaster was inevitable. Preparing was more a just-in-case activity. As Mills concluded, "Their concerns tend to emerge in response to numerous disaster risks that are widely reported and recognized in wider American culture."
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