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We’re all preppers now

Waiting for a pandemic in West Virginia

This article is taken from the April issue of The Critic. Subscribe here

Business is good for Steve Rene. Though that isn’t a fact he is gloating about. Interest is “up ten-fold”, he tells me, allowing not even the slightest of smiles at this silver lining to the age of Covid-19. As the operations officer of Fortitude Ranch in West Virginia, Rene makes his living worrying full-time about exactly what the arrival of a pandemic has forced millions of us to contemplate: the worst-case scenario. A virus like Covid-19 is just one of a long list of worst-case scenarios that keep Rene busy during the day, if not awake at night.

Whether it is a pandemic, an atomic bomb, an EMP attack, chemical warfare, a catastrophic weather event or some other disaster, manmade or natural, Rene and his colleagues have a plan, offering their clients a refuge not just from the primary crisis, but what they see as their potentially more serious secondary effect of “the long-term loss of law and order”.

That refuge is 100 acres of heavily wooded hillside a few hours’ drive from Washington, DC, where most of the ranch’s members live. To the west is the sparsely settled West Virginia countryside, to the immediate east the million-acre George Washington National Forest.

On site are two large houses, with a third on the way, two bunkers built to survive the fallout of a nuclear weapon, generators and solar panels for power, guns and a gazebo that doubles as a guard tower for defence, enough 25-year-shelf-life food to last each member for four months, enough loo roll and face masks to compete with the most enthusiastic coronavirus stockpilers, a greenhouse in which to grow vegetables, goats for milk, chickens for eggs, cattle waiting for them on a nearby farm for meat, a smoker to turn that meat into jerky, and an Xbox, puzzles and frisbee golf for amusement. Rene’s job is not simply to pile up non-perishable supplies, but to have ready a self-sustaining ecosystem that can persist without outside support.

Contemplating the aftermath of doomsday scenarios has, inevitably, earned Fortitude the “prepper” badge, which it wears with some reluctance. America’s so-called prepper or survivalist movement has a reputation for wingnut libertarianism, second-amendment hobbyism, tin-hatted conspiracy theories, end-times alarmism and, in some cases, even alt-right white supremacism.

They are the subject of freak-show reality television for a domestic audience; overseas, they are cited as evidence of the absurdity of America’s rugged individualism, “Don’t Tread on Me” taken to its logical, ridiculous conclusion. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Rene is keen to distance Fortitude from that stereotype.

“We have no affiliation with militia,” he clarifies as we tour the West Virginia site. “As you can see, this is not militaristic in any way,” he says, pointing to the ranch’s entrance, where there is very little to suggest a property prepared for a community of more than 150 that can survive even as the world around it collapses. Rene himself served in the US Army but eschews camouflage fatigues, and instead resembles a park ranger in his Fortitude-branded khaki shirt.

He wasn’t even an amateur prepper before he was hired by Fortitude under a year ago. After the army, he spent 12 years running an orphanage in Belarus. “I always had the mindset that it is smart to be prepared,” he says. “But I didn’t have my own bunker. I wasn’t part of a community or anything . . . But I have a heart for helping folks, and this fit that bill.”

The firm’s founder, Drew Miller, earned a PhD in public policy at Harvard, where he studied nuclear defence shelters. After a military career, including time in the Pentagon as an intelligence official, Miller worked in defence think-tanks. One of his research topics was the threat of a designer plague: bioengineered viral pandemics unleashed on the American people by a foreign adversary.

Fortitude is keen to emphasise that its members come from across the political spectrum, and are overwhelmingly middle-class professionals. There are members who work in government agencies in DC, Rene says: “They are not what you would think of as backwoods people.” Membership costs anything from $1,000 a year for the “spartan” offering — a grim single berth in a bunker corridor — to $15,000 a year for the “luxury” package, which gets members their own room and a double bed.

According to Rene, those willing to stump up are as likely to be liberals fretting about the consequences of climate change or the possibility of civil war in an increasingly volatile political culture as they are to be right-wingers fearful of totalitarian takeover or World War III.

Fortitude is best understood as a more affordable version of the growing trend of worst-case-scenario planning among the super-rich

Whatever the particular scenario they fear, new members must pass muster with Rene. That means being screened for extreme politics, with Rene checking for “really crazy views” when he meets potential customers. It also means being willing and able to fire a gun. Every able-bodied Fortitude member must do their share of guard duty in the ranch’s gazebo-cum-guard-tower. Members are “encouraged to keep a 12-gauge shotgun (pump probably best) or a magazine-fed rifle firing .223 ammo, such as any of the AR-15 or Mini-14 rifles . . . stored at Fortune Ranch”. Some members need more training at the onsite gun range than others.

Fortitude is best understood as a more affordable version of the growing trend of worst-case-scenario planning among the super-rich. At the Survival Condo Project in Wichita, Kansas, the very wealthy have spent millions of dollars on flats in a former missile silo turned luxury subterranean apartment complex, where they can live under armed guard in an emergency. Silicon Valley tech billionaires have bought homes in New Zealand’s remote Southern Alps in anticipation of an occasion when they might need to escape. Vast Hawaii estates owned by big-tech big beasts including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Oracle’s Larry Ellison are thought to be more than just holiday spots, with bunkers and contingency plans — just like Fortitude’s, only presumably a lot swisher.

So far, Covid-19 has not caused any Fortitude customers to trigger the “anxiety clause” in their contract, which allows them to take shelter if they feel the situation warrants it. Nor have Rene and his colleagues judged the situation to be serious enough for them to send out the signal to their members to head to the ranch. They hope and expect that they won’t need to do so. And they don’t relish the societal breakdown they plan for in the way some preppers sometimes seem to.

But Rene says he is alive to the possibility of a scenario in which the virus, a stock market crash and a “contentious political season” combine and civil unrest builds. “This one thing shouldn’t tear a country down,” he says. “Hopefully it will bring us together, or at least get us better prepared for something like this next time.” He hopes that the coronavirus at least does away with the “stigma that everybody with a mindset to be self-reliant and prepared isn’t a doomsday prepper who wakes up every day thinking that the government is out to get me and the world is going to end at any moment”.

April 2020 may not be the moment of WTSHTF — the “when the shit hits the fan” acronym is prepper-speak for the time their disaster plans go into action — but it is certain to boost demand for survivalist back-up plans like the one offered by Fortitude Ranch. The firm has two sites in Colorado as well as the one in West Virginia and is looking for outside investment to open four more this year. “There are rational professional individuals who are using a facility like this as a life insurance plan that actually, you know, pays while you’re living,” says Rene. Listening to him, as a counter of the worldwide number of coronavirus cases ticks up on a laptop screen in front of us, it hard not to see the logic in the reasoning.

The grim facts of this crisis might not justify a Fortitude membership, premised as it is on the possibility of total societal collapse. The call to head for the ranch probably won’t go out during this crisis, and the coronavirus shutdown, extraordinary though it may be, doesn’t exactly vindicate those who think the answer is always a well-armed bolthole, or bolster the view that these problems are something that can be dealt with alone. But we are likely to emerge on the other side of this pandemic a little bit more prepperish, aware of how quickly the world can change, and willing to contemplate what we will do next time it does.

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