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Photo Illustration by Steve Hedberg
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Geoff Angle, a Farmville resident who works for the Boy Scouts of America, shrugs off the idea of “prepping,” opting to think of it instead as pragmatism and a connection to the land. Basic outdoor skills, like starting a fire, can allow people to be self-reliant in any emergency, he says. Photo by Ash Daniel
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Provisions for sale at Off the Grid Photo by Ash Daniel
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Chantelle Bradley relies on the Off Grid owners for tips on stocking up for emer-gency scenarios Photo by Ash Daniel
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The Off Grid shelves include food, tools, knives and various other gear.Photo by Ash Daniel
Don't call Lori Bush a "prepper." She's just prepared, and she wants you to be, too.
"This is what we want to clarify for people: Being prepared is not for kooks. It's for everyone — it's for your safety," says Bush, a motherly 51-year-old whose pleasant, demeanor rides a draft of enthusiasm when talking about her family's disaster preparedness. "I wouldn't consider us preppers. I would consider us to be very community-minded, where we would like to see everybody being prepared."
With her husband, Charles, Bush owns and operates Off Grid By Design, a solar power and preparedness-supply store in Chesterfield. The couple represents a new breed of Disaster-preparedness buffs — preppers for short — who are intent on taking emergency preparedness out of the realm of overwrought reality television and anonymous websites preaching doomsday. Rather, she says, preparedness is less about learning to refashion the family's silverware into anti-zombie projectiles and more about learning how community, common sense and some very basic readiness steps will make the next winter ice storm, for example, far more tolerable.
"We've seen tragedies everywhere," she says, ticking off past mega-storm hurricanes that have ravaged parts of the Gulf and East coasts in recent years. "Isabelle, Katrina, Sandy — even here, you see people without power for 10 days, and people can't take it — it's just chaos. I don't think anyone should have to put up with chaos. If we're prepared, it's not necessary."
Preppers only really entered the broader mainstream national consciousness as a movement about two years ago with the 2012 premiere of Doomsday Preppers, a reality show on the National Geographic Channel. But the movement first caught wind as the last gusts of Hurricane Katrina puffed across the country's midsection in 2005. In the storm's wake, the country was caught off guard. Disaster and mayhem ruled in New Orleans and the lower Mississippi basin, which bore the brunt of the massive Category 3 storm. In the weeks and months that followed, the real human tragedy unfolded, with entire towns displaced and, at least briefly, a complete breakdown of social structure in New Orleans.
The arrival of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) did little to fix things, and in some ways, the agency's stalled response helped sow the seeds of government distrust.
This is to say nothing of the conspiracy theory-driven wave of prepping — specifically gun buying and chatter on many prepper websites and online message boards — that followed the election and re-election of President Barack Obama.
The preparedness movement gets a bad rap from some of its more visible — and visibly paranoid — adherents, says Geoff Angle, a Farmville resident who is adamant that preparedness far predates prepping.
"I've been studying wilderness survival since about 1995," says Angle, a senior district executive with the Heart of Virginia Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He overseas the Huguenot Trail district, including parts of Chesterfield and Powhatan counties. "My interest in it was sort of personal fulfillment — I didn't have any ideas about prepping as it's termed right now. My desire when I began was reconnecting with nature and learning what that's all about."
Indeed, aside from being prepared for emergencies, Angle sees little commonality between what he does and the image of prepping that reality television paints.
"I would like to draw a distinction between doomsday preppers and what I'd call regular preppers — or what I'd just call pragmatic," he says. As some recent climate and economic events serve to agitate doomsday preppers, Angle notes, the same events ought to serve as warnings, though less panic-driven, to regular folks as well. "We're able to see what's termed climate change regardless of what you consider the source of that climate change to be."
And regardless of whether the recent economic recession signals a possible breakdown of society or just a reason to take up a hoe in the backyard garden, he says, "people need to look to be more self-reliant in the future, and these reliance skills are nothing complicated."
When in Doubt, Eat a Tree
And should disaster overtake us, Angle says his brand of preparedness is less about brands and more about knowing what to do with the generic — the things around us.
To this end, and with an eye to the next generation, Angle is using his job and his passion for survival techniques to found a Boy Scouts Venturing troop in Richmond. Venturing is for both boys and girls ages 14 to 20, and while many Venturing troops focus on community service or athletics — there's a scuba diving Venturing troop in the Heart of Virginia district — this particular troop, he says, will base its efforts around "self-reliance and sustainability."
He's still looking for troop leaders, but "there's going to be a lot of crossover with basic scouting skills," he says. "If you can keep yourself alive in the wilderness, then the same skill sets are going to apply in a disaster."
These skills, he says, may range from such simple and mundane activities as backyard gardening and homesteading to how to turn a pine tree into food.
"We're talking survival here, not the latest episode of Chopped," Angle says, referring to the popular
Food Network cooking show. "Pine trees offer a few things — one, the needles are a very rich source of vitamin C." Chopping and steeping the needles in hot water — not boiling water as then you're drinking turpentine — releases the vitamins.
And then there's the bark, which also is edible. Adirondack, the name given to one Northeastern Indian tribe, literally means "they eat trees." The bark of pine trees was to those Indians — and is to Angle, too — a source of flour.
"It's not exactly flavorful. It tastes somewhere between a green banana and a two-by-four," he says, but in Angle's mind, what he wants kids to learn is less about prepping and more about reconnecting with their world.
It's not your mother's Tupperware party, but then again Tupperware promises only to keep your leftovers fresh. What Lori Bush peddles may preserve your family — and it's far less likely to get moldy in the back of the refrigerator.
So far, she's facilitated three "prepper-ware" parties, hosted in various homes in the Richmond area. "It looks like your typical home party — your Pampered Chef, your Mary Kay, your Tupperware, your Longaberger Basket — but it's teaching people skills," says Bush. "It's teaching people how to make a plan."
But first it's about reminding people of the need for a plan, which means her "prepper-ware" parties often go off with a bang — literally.
"It's hard to talk about disasters when you've been at work all day or it's a sunny day and people are thinking about going boating or whatever, but you've got to get their mind there, to go, ‘Oh, yeah, disaster,' " she says. Which is why every party starts with a loud party popper set off in another room.
"We start by showing this video — we put on some disasters," Bush says. Meanwhile, the hostess of the party, who's in on the game, is sent to the kitchen to refresh the bowl of Chex Mix — and to pop the main breaker for the house.
"I want them to see," says Bush, adding that the effect tends to cause chills and mild panic. "Boom. Then they're in the mindset to accept what you're saying. Then I've got everything sitting there. I've got candles and a flashlight and I've got emergency radio, and that puts people in that mindframe."
Obviously, the idea is to lead people back to Bush's Midlothian Turnpike store, Off Grid By Design, where
Bush and her husband await with a range of products — from portable UV water purifiers to slingshots to pre-packed "bug-out" bags — but it's also to send them to any area store that might sell supplies of batteries, canned goods or Sterno packs. And it's about getting them to think about how their family should react in a crisis.
The mere combination of Bush's simulated lights-out panic attack and her follow-up pragmatic advice holds strong appeal for Chantelle Bradley. The head of a local marketing agency and an active member of Chesterfield's Chamber of Commerce, Bradley says that once she makes it through her holiday party rush, she plans on hosting a prepper-ware party of her own with Bush's assistance.
"It's definitely something that's on my mind," she says of her own efforts to stock up and expand her skills in advance of the next hurricane or blizzard.
"With the way things are today, I don't want to come off sounding like a crazy person, but you just don't know," Bradley says. "I would much rather be prepared for something than not to be. If it's something simple, there are simple steps you can take that will at least make it — I don't want to say convenient for you — but who knows what will happen? I'm just your average concerned citizen, I guess."
A few years ago, Bradley says, she likely would have laughed off talk about taking precautionary steps ahead of a possible wide-scale calamity.
"It sounded very much like a conspiracy theory, Walking Dead [or] doomsday kind of stuff," she says, referring to another popular cable-television show about a post-apocalyptic world where survivors battle zombies. "But I hear it quite a lot these days. There are a lot of people concerned about what's going to happen."
And here, Bradley says, she's talking not about the camo-clad guy in line at Walmart.
"I'm involved in the business community, and I hear a lot. I talk to a lot of people all day long," she says. "It's not ‘if' it's going to happen, it's ‘when' it's going to happen. And I don't go looking for the conversation — it's just what's being talked about
It's hard to pretend that some of this is not in the context of politics, Bradley says, and many of her friends who are active or former military service members tell her there's reason to be concerned.
"There's just so much crap going on right now — overseas," she says. "I hate to say that, but I don't feel like I can trust our federal government to really keep me safe."
As some doomsday preppers vent their suspicions of government conspiracy and their less doom-and-gloom preparedness-minded brethren breathe in their fair share of that mistrust, perhaps the most surprising aspect of prepping is just how much support the movement gets from the very government it views skeptically.
Bush, for instance, says she came to prepping only about two years ago, but since that time she's become certified in basic lifesaving through a first-responder course offered through Chesterfield's department of emergency management. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program is supported by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and FEMA — it clearly places less emphasis on fending off zombies and far more on helping people recover.
"It's teaching people how to make a plan," says Bush. "I went and got CERT-certified. The government knows they can't take care of everybody in a natural disaster."
By that turn, her shop is filled not only with supplies like survival knives and sealed, 5-gallon buckets of freeze-dried, gluten-free meals, but it's also well-stocked with racks of informational pamphlets produced by FEMA and its Virginia counterparts that preach disaster preparedness.
"All of this is from [the Virginia Department of] Emergency Management — Virginia Ready," she says, dealing out brochures like playing cards. Many actually are cards: laminated checklists meant as cheat sheets in case of emergencies.
"Everybody should have cards," Bush says. "How about seniors? They've got a separate one for them. And all this in Spanish."
Bush says that any mistrust of government really ought to be a healthy respect for the government's limitations during an emergency. "It's not that [government] can't take care of people, but they can't do it fast enough for the amount of people it
Enter Derek Andresen, administrative analyst for Richmond's Department of Emergency Management. The department — with only four members — technically is a division of the city's fire department, and Andresen says much of the department's job is education and preparing plans to coordinate resources.
"Everyone who has the capacity to be prepared should be," says Andresen, whose department operates a CERT certification program similar to the one Bush completed in Chesterfield. Having people trained and aware is essential in a real emergency, he says, because recent disasters have shown the very real likelihood that people need to be able to "go it alone" for between 72 and 96 hours before government services catch up — even in Central Virginia, where risk always seemed lower in the past.
"We're at risk for, as we know now, more earthquakes than we thought," Andresen says. "Hurricanes have always been one of the higher [risks], and we can also get ice storms. [Hazardous material events] can happen around here. I don't think we would eliminate many things as to what we could expect." In other words, in a state that previously didn't include certain seemingly wild possibilities, it now simply borders on imprudent to overlook even the improbable.
Prepper Versus Shopper
Andresen looks on the current hype over zombie apocalypses and imminent government collapses as cyclical. "Remember during the Cold War when people would have fallout shelters dug in their yards?" he says. But, ironically, it also bolsters state and federal efforts to bolster awareness of
"There's always been that subculture that apocalypse is upon us," he says. "Has that changed how we as an office operate? Post-Katrina, we have always operated on the advice given to people that you should be prepared to go it alone for 72 to 96 hours. Even as recently as [Hurricane] Sandy, that's continued to bear itself out. As many resources as we can bring to bear, it's nothing in comparison to what a big disaster can do."
Andresen says he's gratified to see CERT programs, like the one Bush trained through, thrive in this pre-apocalyptic environment.
"We have an active CERT community in the city," he says, estimating numbers in the hundreds, based on a mailing distribution list for members. "Our counties also have active CERT communities."
It's a commitment, of course, but it's far from joining the National Guard. Weekend training and occasional meetings are enough to keep participants abreast of basic first aid, survival and search and rescue skills. And for their trouble, participants get an equipment bag, complete with work helmet, heavy-duty gloves and a first-aid kit. "Who doesn't want a helmet?" Andresen says. "It's the carrot at the end of the stick."
But the real reward, he says, comes down to what both Bush and Angle talk about, which is community — being able to help your family and neighbors.
This brings it all back to that zombie apocalypse scenario, says Angle. Zombies in doomsday-prepper parlance aren't so much a real concern as a metaphor for something else. When that disaster comes, the zombies could end up being anyone who didn't prepare, and to some doomsday preppers, those people become the enemy.
Wrong thinking, says Angle. Those zombies are our neighbors, and the key to preventing a zombie apocalypse is not storing walls of creamed corn and clips of ammunition in the basement.
"I think there's a big failure in our country with getting to know our neighbors," he says, calling the simple act of knocking on your neighbor's door possibly the most important prepper precaution anyone can take. "Simple gestures can go a long way. Getting to know your neighbors during a holiday can go a long way. Once you strike some commonality, then you can build concepts of trust and working together."
And what of those cans of creamed corn and freeze-dried lentils? Angle sees value in having a store of them, but "everything in moderation" is a lesson lost on the disciples of the televised prepper movement, Angle says.
"You might want to relabel them ‘doomsday shoppers,' because they seem to be primarily concerned with acquiring food and guns and these vast stores of things," he says, noting the distinct lack of community and trust-building that's implied in storing up ammo to defend against your neighbors.
"If you really visit certain scenarios, if you're holed up in a bunker, that bunker may not be pragmatic," he says, calling storehouses like that "targets" for looters. He adds, "What people would do who are really prepping is they'd get to know their neighbors, creating community. Family doesn't have to be bloodline."