NEW YORK — A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, 40 people gathered at a church for a show-and-tell session sponsored by the New York City Preppers Network. One by one, they stood and exhibited their “bugout bags,” meticulously packed receptacles filled with equipment meant to see them through the collapse of civilization.
Onto a folding table came an array of disaster swag: compasses and iodine pills, hand-cranked radios and solar-powered flashlights, magnesium fire-starters and a fully charged Kindle with digital road maps of the tri-state region. Many items went far beyond the “10 Basic Pillars of Bug-Out Gear” that Jason Charles, the network’s leader, had passed out in advance through the Internet.
A good number were tweaked to fit their owners’ needs and interests. A locksmith had a lock-picking set. A vegetarian had a stash of homemade dehydrated lentils. One man had a condom designed to serve as an emergency canteen; another had a rat trap — to catch and eat the rats.
After showing off his bag (parachute cord, a bivouac sack, a two-week supply of Meals Ready to Eat), Charles, a New York City firefighter, told the group he had just bought a dog. “So now I have to implement his plan, too,” he said. With a pause and a sheepish look, he added, “That’s weird, right?”
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New York hardly seems like a natural location for what has become known as the prepper movement, but the city’s prepping community is large, diverse and growing rapidly, its leaders say.
To the unprepared, “Prepper” is likely to summon images of armed zealots hunkered down in bunkers awaiting the End of Days, but in New York, reality is less dramatic. Local Preppers are doctors, doormen, charter-school executives, subway conductors, advertising writers and reporters.
It isn’t easy being a Prepper. The discipline has taken blows from TV programs such as “Doomsday Preppers,” which — despite record ratings and recent episodes, like “Escape From New York” — is more or less a weekly invitation to laugh at lunatics tunneling into mountainsides to escape a Russian nuclear attack.
Even though prepping is increasingly visible in the culture — through meet-up groups, books, films and weekend retreats — it continues to be thought of as a marginal and unseemly business, on par with believing the government is hiding aliens at Area 51.
I mostly kept quiet about prepping, aware of the embarrassment I was courting. It was, therefore, with relief that I found myself this month among brethren Preppers who understood my desire to have at hand a packed supply of power bars or a LifeStraw personal drinking tool. You do meet Preppers in New York who are preparing for extreme events such as solar flares or an eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, but most say their concerns are more immediate, more local. Chief among them are terrorist attacks, natural disasters and economic collapse.
“The Earth isn’t going to crash into Planet X and the Mayan thing never happened” is how Charles put it when I introduced myself at the show-and-tell. “But I’ll tell you this,” he added. “People here definitely used their preps during Sandy.”
I liked how Preppers were given to debate (bear spray or baseball bats? water purification or water filtration?) and how they were versed in esoteric areas of knowledge (fish antibiotics, New York City knife laws). I was especially enamored of the jargon: “GOOD” (Get Out of Dodge) or “TEOTWAWKI” (The End of the World as We Know It).
During his presentation, Charles suggested a well-prepared bugout bag was only part of the equation; just as important was knowing where to go. “Bugging out will not be easy,” he explained. “It might take three or four hours to get out of the city.”
Here come capitalists
Early in my travels, I was told the man to see for a deeper understanding of prepping in New York was Aton Edwards, founder of the International Preparedness Network and author of the emergency survival guide “Preparedness Now!”
Edwards, 51, is often called the city’s foremost expert in personal disaster preparation; he has appeared on the “Today” show, has taught his “Ready Up!” seminars to hundreds of participants with partners such as the Red Cross and has set up, as part of the National Urban Self-Reliance and Preparedness Program, “incident command centers” across New York.
In his professional opinion, the next big development in prepping will be the arrival of entrepreneurial capitalists, and this made me think of Fabian Illanes and Roman Zrazhevskiy, two men in their 20s I met at the show-and-tell.
Illanes and Zrazhevskiy, former high-school classmates on Long Island, recently created Readytogosurvival.com, a website that sells prepacked bugout bags with paramilitary names such as the Tactical Traveler ($439.99) and the Covert Defender ($629.99). They said they had been visiting Prepper meetings across the region in order “to discover their customers.”
It seemed important to know if this all-encompassing negativity was histrionic or appropriate. I interviewed Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, whom Gov. Andrew Cuomo had recently named to lead a commission investigating how ready the state was for another emergency like Hurricane Sandy.
Redlener said it was rational — indeed, it was recommended — to have a three-day supply of food and water, a working flashlight, a first-aid kit, a radio that runs without batteries and a plan in place to rejoin one’s relatives after a disaster.
Then he surprised me. I had never heard even a quasi-government official admit that the authorities would not respond promptly in an emergency, but Redlener said “gaps” existed during “megadisasters,” hours, even days, when there might not be an official response.
“The well-being of many, many people in harm’s way will be dependent in those gaps on social networks, on community and on individual preparedness,” he said.
“We are all first responders.”