WASHINGTON — Imagine if society as you know it suddenly stopped. All of your modern conveniences were no longer available — no food, no electricity, no potable water, no connection to the outside world.
Would you be prepared? How would you survive? Would you know how to provide for loved ones? Would you even know how to make it through a night?
With economies collapsing all over the world, with storms like Sandy destroying all in its path, with tragedies like 9-11 promoting fear, some people are mobilizing for crisis.
Chris Watson, a 38-year-old construction worker from Baltimore County, has spent most of his life learning and practicing skills necessary to survive after some catastrophic event or in a prolonged degeneration of society’s structure.
Watson is known as a “prepper,” a term that he finds somewhat pejorative.
“It’s always the extreme ones on the fringes who get noticed,” said Watson. “So when people actually start researching preppers, they’re going to realize preppers are their neighbors, not the kooks you see on TV.”
Inevitably, this nomenclature associates Watson, in many people’s minds, with the Doomsday theorists who have decided the world will end this Dec. 21 in conjunction with the end of the ancient Mayan Calendar, or wolf-criers like Harold Camping, who has incorrectly predicted the Rapture several times.
Watson manages the Maryland-specific online forum of the American Preppers Network, which has at least 25,000 unique visitors. What he and his peers are worried about is generally much more tangible than an apocalyptic event; they fret over situations that are occurring all the time.
“What’s going to happen to our standard of living?” said Watson. “What’s going to happen economically? Is government going to be able to bounce back and respond to that? Maybe they could eventually. But how are you and your family going to survive that in the meantime?”
There are three general scenarios that Watson is prepared for: Some type of natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, some kind of attack from a foreign or domestic foe, or some kind of economic collapse like Greece. In any situation, Watson feels assured that he could lead his loved ones through the chaos.
“I’ve got enough to help my family and myself and maybe even help out some people in need in my neighborhood. But the thing with me is I’ve got the skills and the knowledge–I’m not going to store water when I have the means to filter some water.”
As the prepper image emerges from its bunker into the mainstream, along with it come misconceptions of paranoid hill dwellers and conspiracy theorists, fortified by heavy arms and canned goods. But beyond the stereotypes lies a fellowship bonded by pragmatism.
“The majority of (preppers) I’ve encountered may have some pretty ‘out there’ ideas about things, but they’re not out there stockpiling ammo and MREs, hiding out in a basement or on a mountain top or something like that,” says Watson.
“Who has the money to do all that kind of stuff and stay engaged in society? It’s mostly people like myself who are just keeping some extra stuff; maybe getting some skills. It’s actually just some people who are exercising prudence and common sense.”
Some of Watson’s simple and practical ideas are to have “a small generator, have some extra bottles of water, and maybe some food that you don’t need to heat. Stuff like that. That’s what preppers are, not somebody sitting on a ton of ammunition and their own arsenal.”
His prepper pedigree comes from his upbringing in North Carolina, and later Maryland, where his family canned, gardened and raised livestock to help stretch their modest blue-collar incomes, then he honed these skills, and more, during his 20 years in the Air Force and National Guard.
As he became more disenchanted with the state of the nation, Watson sought like-minded people. During the search he found the term “prepper” and stumbled onto the American Preppers Network, where users can swap information and tips.
“I had no idea there was a term out there,” said Watson. “I got interested in finding out what (a prepper) is and stumbled onto the American Preppers Network, and I started posting on some websites.
“I never really considered myself a prepper, just somebody that was already doing a lot of what (other preppers) were talking about. On the websites I quickly gained a reputation as someone who had something to offer, what people wanted to hear, and it just grew from there.”
As his reputation grew, Watson became the facilitator of the Maryland APN, which today is relatively small and inactive.
APN founder Tom Martin said that users of the site are not required to provide their location, but more than 100 have identified themselves as Marylanders.
At the moment, the site averages 10,000 hits a day, but every time there is a disaster, membership and Internet traffic increases substantially. The aftermath of superstorm Sandy and the looming fiscal cliff — automatic tax increases and dramatic federal spending cuts set to go into effect in January — have been no different.
“The average prepper is not concerned with the end of the world,” says Martin, 35, from near Sandpoint, Idaho. “That gets taken out of context — the term a lot of people use is the end of the world ‘as we know it.'”
“What’s changed is modern society has gotten away from survival and preparedness and the sustainable living mindset that we all used to have at one time. What we teach and share and learn from each other, none of it’s new. We’re just revitalizing that.”
Not everyone is endowed with the knowhow and wherewithal that comes with a lifetime of practice like Watson and Martin. But that’s where sites like the APN and the DelMarVa Survival Training Site come in.
Through the DelMarVa Survival Training Site, 65-year-old Joe Parish of Seaford, Del., disseminates ‘how-to’ articles and coordinates training sessions on a variety of skills, like: How to preserve food, how to create first-aid kits using alternative medicines, how to make a toilet, how to make and store potable water, and even how to safely use weapons. The events are free and open to the public.
“I try to get people involved as much as possible in getting prepared for emergencies,” said Parish, “because I’ve seen from past experiences with hurricanes and things of that nature, we’re not ready for them.”
One of the first things Parish suggests for newbies is to learn to dehydrate food, which will last 10 to 20 years if stored properly.
“You’re thinking not so much the end of the world, but losing your job, rough times on the economy,” said Parish. “So if you’ve got survival foods, you can always eat.”
Parish’s classes have been ongoing for several years. Although he lucked out when Sandy hit, one patron of his workshops told him that the skills she learned came in very handy.
“She was prepared for losing electricity,” said Parish. “She had her cooking facilities set up, lanterns, flashlights and a kerosene heater. She’s been going to every meetup I’ve had. She even makes her own soap, and saved a drastic amount of money — she likes the quality better.”
As the movement becomes more mainstream, a market for prepper products is emerging. The wholesaler Costco, for example, offers a personal year’s supply of food — 9,687 total servings–for approximately $1,200, a product that both Martin and Parish agree is too expensive and unsustainable.
“You can do the same thing yourself for a fraction of the price,” said Parish, who learned much of his survival skills in the Air Force. “You’re going to have to have farming skills, but you’ve got to have enough food to get you into the season to where you can grow food.”
Pop culture propagates some of the negative stereotypes of the movement, like the reality show “Doomsday Preppers,” where participants invite camera crews into their strongholds and submit their “doomsday” plans to judges’ scoring.
“If you’re prepared, that’s all well and good, but you don’t take a set of cameras into your house,” said Parish. “You don’t advertise those things.”
To Parish and Martin, there is a certain irony to stockpiling guns and ammunition, non-perishable food and water, all within the confines of your secure bunker in anticipation of a breakdown of public infrastructure, of law and order — and then telling the world where you stashed the goods. Although these shows raise awareness, the results are bittersweet.
“I think for every person (the publicity) brings to the so-called ‘movement,'” said Martin, “there’s a hundred more ridiculing it.”