BY ALL APPEARANCES, Bob Valenti is your average upwardly mobile suburbanite. The 40-something father of two has a couple of advanced degrees and a high-paying job at a high-flying technology company. He has an aggressive retirement plan and plenty socked away in college funds for his kids. As of last year, he also has a plan for surviving the end of the world as we know it.
A few years ago, Valenti (who asked that his real name not be used, for reasons that will be clear soon enough) and his wife traded their Chicago townhouse for a gorgeous $800,000 residence in Downers Grove, a suburb west of the city. The idyllic, 12-room house features handsome walnut cabinetry, a sprawling yard, and a basement that holds the beginnings of what will ultimately be a year's stockpile of food and emergency supplies. Valenti recently ordered a box of 50 lighters and is squirreling away batteries, which he believes could someday be highly valuable for bartering. He has 25 pounds of meat in his freezer and another 50 at an undisclosed location out of town that he refers to as Plan B. Should he and his family need Plan B, he has a couple of 30-pound packets of "survival seeds" there for jump-starting their own farm.
Valenti, who otherwise seems like a perfectly reasonable man, is preparing for society's collapse, which he believes could come any day now in the form of a global pandemic or the implosion of our highly leveraged financial system. "All of a sudden, you have hyperinflation, and you'll need a wagon of cash for a loaf of bread," he says as we chat in his immaculate kitchen while a cleaning woman vacuums in the next room. "Society could crumble in three days. That's all it would take. Then it's going to get primal."
For most people, the term "survivalists" — or the more polite "preppers" — conjures images of tinfoil hat–wearing conspiracy theorists holed up in Montana hoarding canned pinto beans and assault weapons. National Geographic Channel's hugely popular Doomsday Preppers, which spotlights fanatics who build bulletproof shelters out of train cars to wait out Armageddon, or dress their families in matching hazmat suits, reinforces the extreme stereotypes. So do the "doom boom" opportunists who peddle nuke-proof multimillion-dollar luxury condos in abandoned missile silos, complete with spas, rock-climbing walls, hydroponic farms, and HDTV windows programmable to the preapocalyptic view of your choice.
Valenti is just one example of how the prepper movement has climbed out of the bunker and established itself, quietly, along affluent streets in suburbs around the country. Waysun Johnny Tsai, chief instructor at the Combined Universal Martial Applications Survival School, looks the hard-core survivalist part but says that his students don't. Over the past few years, participants in his classes at the Chicago school have included doctors, lawyers, and upper-management types who live in upscale city neighborhoods and hoity-toity surrounding towns. Tsai tells me that he trains individuals for "the possibility, not the probability" of hard-core disasters and civil unrest. They come to him to learn how to build makeshift traps for catching their own food and light fires with a metallic rod and Vaseline-soaked cotton ball, after the s--- hits the fan — or SHTF, in prepper-speak.
With every new epidemic or terrorist attack in the headlines, a new batch of preppers is born, says David Scott, whose Northbrook, Illinois, company, LifeSecure, sells everything from crush-resistant earthquake survival kits to fireproof masks designed for fleeing a bombed-out building. "We think of it like sediment," he says of the movement that he, of course, has a stake in stoking. "Another headline comes and another layer forms."
IT WAS LAST fall's Ebola outbreak that made Valenti suddenly feel he was ill-equipped to protect his family if a pandemic disease were to spiral out of control. "I thought, 'Why am I not more prepared for this?'" he recalls. "I fear the government isn't very prepared. I don't have any confidence that Chicago can handle it; Chicago just figured out how to handle major snowstorms."
Within days, Valenti kicked off his own efforts. He walks me down to the basement and cracks open two large plastic storage trunks. Inside one is a six-gallon bucket containing 330 servings of just-add-water meals with a 20-year shelf life, a water purifier you can drop in your tub — which can store 100 gallons of drinking water — and a military-grade first-aid kit complete with sutures, splints, and a hand-crank emergency radio. The other trunk holds three 15-gallon containers of gas.
Valenti's largest-scale effort, Plan B, is an outwardly innocuous summer house that's been in his wife's family for years. It's this property that he and a handful of like-minded friends and family members have designated as their safe haven if they need to (a) wait out a short-term threat or (b) start from scratch — hence the survival seeds. Valenti won't tell me where this house is, except that it is a few hours' drive away, is near the woods, has a virtually limitless water source, and is "easily defendable." Onsite is a small arsenal of "multiple rifles, guns, and pistols," along with 3,000 rounds of ammunition.
No one other than those in on Plan B knows about his new hobby. Not coworkers, not friends, not extended family. And especially not the guy next door. "This is about survival. I only want to talk about it with the people I'll be surviving with," he says matter-of-factly. "Mostly, I don't want my neighbors to know about it. Because I don't want them knocking on my door when the s--- hits the fan."
PREPPERS ARE, NOT surprisingly, a paranoid bunch. Locating people willing to speak with me about their habits was more challenging than finding vegans at a gun range. After emailing a dozen members of Northern Illinois Preppers, a Meetup online community whose membership has grown from about 110 to more than 150 in the past six months, I received two responses. One was from someone who told me to take a hike. The other was delivered via a peer-to-peer encrypted email service, chewing me out for asking about his prepper efforts.
Then I casually mentioned this assignment in an email exchange with a former colleague, an advertising executive who lives on Chicago's North Side. I was surprised to discover a closet prepper in my midst.
"I'm sure you want people a lot more hardcore than me," wrote my friend, whom we'll call Pete Campbell, "but I'm a bit of a prepper. I probably have some materials and views that could get me seriously put on a watch list. Plus, I don't want people knowing I got the goods when they get desperate."
We agree to meet at a bar near his place. When I arrive, he's already there, sitting in a booth and sipping a craft beer. After some small talk, he tells me that if things "go from pudding to poop," as one prepper so eloquently posted on a chat board, his primary concern is getting out of the city, which would have the highest concentration of desperate, unprepared types. Since he's a condo dweller with little space, his "bug-in" plan is limited: two cases of military-issued MREs (meals ready to eat) that could last him a month and three firearms (an AR-15 rifle, a .38 revolver, and a .45 semiautomatic pistol).
For the trek out of the city (on foot, if necessary), he has a carefully constructed "bug-out" bag, which some preppers refer to as a 72-hour kit or an INCH ("I'm never coming home") bag. (Preppers really relish their acronyms.) "If something goes down, I grab this bag and a couple other things and get out the door," he says. "Once the roads become impassable, I throw this on my back. My plan is to make it 72 hours and figure it out from there."
He places the compact 25-pound pack on the table and starts talking me through its contents: water packets, protein bars, survival rations, a tent, light sticks, a first-aid kit, and one of those foil thermal blankets that are draped over finishers at the end of a marathon. Everything is individually packed in plastic bags, in case he has to wade through a river or endure a rainstorm.
He doesn't consider himself an extremist. "As soon as the power goes out, I don't pull out the supplies. I like to think I have a firm enough grasp on reality that I am comfortable with my level [of prepping]. For me, it's a hobby I hope I never have to use. A lot of people have figurines on glass shelves that they display. I'm collecting peace of mind."
MARK TRAPP, A corporate attorney, and his wife, Karina, invite me to sit on the couch in their sunny living room in Glenview, Illinois. A large portrait of Abe Lincoln lords over the proceedings. The bookshelves lining the walls are filled with tomes on Reagan and Churchill, as well as a few zombie books.
Their clan of seven convenes every Monday night to pray and to discuss whatever is on anyone's mind. One evening last fall, 17-year-old Eleni brought up the topic of emergency planning, which she had recently learned about at school. Soon the conversation progressed from blizzards to the quintessential prepper novel One Second After, which she had recently read, detailing the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse attack (Newt Gingrich wrote the foreword). Eleni, who has braces and hipster glasses, asked her parents how prepared they were for a serious disaster such as an EMP.
"Putting the kids to bed that night, I thought, ‘What if something bad happened?'" Karina recalls. "What do we say to our kids, 'Sorry, we didn't prepare?'"
The concept of prepping wasn't new to the Trapps. They're practicing Mormons, members of a religion that stresses self-reliance. All members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encouraged to have an emergency plan that includes at least a three-month supply of food and, ideally, up to a year's worth of "long-term storage." And while not every practicing Mormon follows this rule, it is actually a full-blown commandment.
The Trapps have made up ground quickly since last fall. "We may not be far up in the Mormon totem pole," Mark says with a laugh about the size of the family's survival stash. "But we're pretty far up there compared with most people just by virtue of the little that we've done."
We walk down to the basement, where shelves across the back wall are filled with food. Boxes of Cap'n Crunch and Cheez-Its are stacked 10-high near the crawl space, which the family might clear out for additional storage. Twenty-four cases of water sit under a table. All told, the Trapps are closing in on enough food and supplies to last about three months.
We discuss whether, as many preppers believe, society is more dangerous now than in the recent past, as reports of school shootings, terror attacks, and global pandemics have become routine. "I don't know if we're the only ones feeling it, but there's this sense that times are different now," he says. "It's sort of like the middle is not holding. Things are fraying, and I think more and more people are coming to the conclusion that if something is gonna get done, you may have to do it yourself."
That includes protecting his family if a disaster triggers mayhem in the streets. "Those who are ready to deal with it are going to do much better than those who aren't," he says. "The social contract is potentially written on very thin paper when stuff goes down."
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Chicago Magazine. Reprinted with permission.