There have always been Americans worried about some pending religious, social or natural cataclysm. But the business of catering to those fears, and helping people prepare to survive the next big calamity, has changed substantially in the age of Donald Trump.
And that change is evident on a particular county road in Kansas, near the center of the continental United States. Here, what looks like a grassy mound is protected by barbed wire fence and a heavily armed guard. A massive concrete entrance frames big, heavy steel-blast doors.
This is Larry Hall’s survival shelter, an old Atlas nuclear missile silo, where 70 or so people may ride out the apocalypse. I was recently welcomed inside.
“Those are three nuclear, biological and chemical air filtration units,” Hall says, pointing out the filters. ‘’And we filter every known pathogen to man, including weaponized nerve gas.”
This place has two generators, with a half-year's worth of fuel and a filter to keep it fresh, a wind turbine, and a battery big enough to power the place for a day. Hall says they’ve got about five years worth of food, and a secure, filtered well. Some of the walls are nine feet thick, and the place sinks 200 feet into the prairie. But it is not austere.
Welcome to Florida
We walk through a hatch into a warm, humid room, painted to look like the beach. In it, a big saltwater pool stretches more than 70 feet.
“We’ve got a waterfall, we’ve got a water slide, we’ve got rocks,” says Hall, talking over the roar of the water.
“I mean, this is a resort-style pool in an underground, nuclear-hardened bunker,” he says with a grin.
The 12 apartments here are just as nice, all decked out with virtual windows, walk-in closets and high-end appliances. The units sell for up to $3 million a pop, plus $5,000 a month. And they’re all gone.
“It’s full, it’s sold out. Yeah, this place is sold out,” Hall says proudly.
Now, Hall’s filling up a second survival bunker, one three times this size, as his client base expands from what it was five years ago.
“I would say that back in the original time that we were building these, there were more Republicans that who were fearful of the presidency, and recently in the last year and a half, there’s been a switch,” says Hall, referring to Democrats.
Hall says more liberal preppers are worried about climate change or societal collapse under President Trump. But, despite all the pessimism and interest in dystopian fiction these days, Hall says that actually taking steps to survive real calamity can be a tough transition for progressives. Hall says “A-list Hollywood people” have called him to complain about being oppressed for being preppers.
“I can’t tell you who said this, but the quote was, in Hollywood it’s easier to come out and join the LGBT community and say that you’re gay, than it is to come out and say you are a prepper," Hall says. "You just don’t do it. People will ridicule you and pick on you."
But that stigma may be fading, according Robert Vicino, who runs the Vivos Group, which is in the survival shelter business.
In a video advertising for Vivos shelters, glitchy scenes of mayhem and destruction flash across the screen.
“It has gone from OMG, to mainstream and beyond,” Vicino says.
Vicino says his business is up dramatically over the last year. He’s catering primarily to a more middle-class customer.
“We’re not trying to build the Ritz,” Vicino says. “It’s really all about survival.”
Vicino is developing 575 World War II-era munitions storage bunkers on a sprawling site in South Dakota: $25,000 will get you a bare concrete bunker. He’s also converting a massive underground, Cold War weapons storage facility in eastern Europe. He had planned an even bigger shelter in Atchison, Kansas, to be built in a limestone mine where the Army once stored equipment. A year into the project, Vicino says, he asked an Army geologist why the stone ceilings kept “doming out,” or dropping huge rocks.
“He said there’s a reason the Army pulled out of there,” Vicino recalls. “Because they couldn’t stabilize the facility. He said, this thing’s unstable.”
The moral here is that just because the military used it, doesn’t mean it’s safe. Many old missile sites, for instance, are contaminated.
Back down in Larry Hall’s underground condo in Kansas, he’s talking about the next project going in; he won’t say where, but, responding to customer demand, it's going to be even fancier. “The goal is to get the next one built, and the next one built and the next one built, and build the next gen,” he says.
It’s a business plan that banks on sustained anxiety, which, in the current political climate, seems like a pretty safe bet.
Frank Morris is a reporter for KCUR and a correspondent for NPR.