Inside a church on 189th Street, the New York City Preppers Network gathers for its monthly meeting. Around two dozen men and women sit on plastic chairs facing a whiteboard.
Jason Charles a 39-year-old firefighter who serves as the chapter president, introduces the meeting’s speaker, Shane Hobel. He’s the founder of Mountain Scout Survival School, which teaches wilderness survival skills.
Before beginning his three-hour talk — which will cover the city’s optimal escape routes and what to put in a portable, 72-hour survival bag — Hobel mandates that Trump talk is off-limits.
“I don’t care about your political status,” he says. “Do you think mother nature cares about your politics? If you’ve never made a fire, you are going to die.” In the back, a toddler shrieks.
The group Hobel is addressing is a local chapter of the American Preppers Network, a national organisation that promotes self-reliance in case a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or other unforeseen catastrophe strikes.
Once perceived as a reactionary, conservative trend, the prepper movement has been portrayed by the TV show “Doomsday Preppers” and the 1981 film “Escape from New York” as full of conspiracy theorists that wear tin-foil hats and build personal bunkers. But the community actually includes people of many backgrounds, economic statuses, races, ages, and political affiliations. It’s even recently evolved to include Silicon Valley’s ultra-wealthy. Preppers simply share a desire to prepare for the worst, whether that’s a nuclear bomb, modern civil war, or hurricane that destroys their home.
Devoted preppers, like Hobel and Charles, say the movement is growing rapidly and is poised to become more mainstream over the next few years.
“It’s getting bigger because people are panicking,” Charles says. “If Trump keeps up his shit, it’s going to grow. Once he starts talking about wars, we’re screwed.”
A handful of American prepping supply companies have seen spikes in sales since the election. Idaho-based company My Patriot Supply reported double year-over-year sales during the week of Inauguration. And Doomsday Prep, which has a storefront in Georgia, has seen more than 15% year-over-year growth since Election Day, according to owner David Sanders.
Colin Waugh, a 31-year-old resident of Independence, Missouri, launched a Facebook group called the Liberal Prepper the afternoon after Trump’s election, and invited 38 of his friends. It now boasts nearly 1,700 members. The page, which gets updated every half-hour, is littered with posts on everything from how to jar and store vegetables to instructions for building homemade canoes.
“If you were to ask us what cataclysm is most likely now, we’d say some Trump-related accident that causes the dishevelment of society,” he says, adding, “My goal is to either prevent tyranny in America or be prepared for it if we can.”
Waugh says he never considered buying a gun before the 2016 campaign cycle, but purchased a 12-gauge shotgun right before the election and a 9-millimetre handgun after. He recounts watching a pair of Trump supporters interviewed on CNN in October 2016.
“We saw a gentleman, jumping up and down, telling the reporter, ‘Whether he wins or loses, we are taking our country back.’ I couldn’t believe it,” Waugh says.
After seeing that report, Waugh and his wife started stockpiling protein bars, rice, peanut butter, first-aid supplies, batteries, toilet paper, cat food, trash bags, medical handbooks, and as many canned goods as they could fit in the pantry of their one-bedroom apartment. Waugh’s worst fears are that the US could get attacked or that the white nationalist alt-right could incite a civil war.
“It’s not like it was in 1865,” he says. “If we had another civil war, the media and social media would fuel its combustion.”
Waugh plans to launch a Liberal Prepper website, which will feature a forum, marketplace, and newsfeed, on March 1. He says he’ll manage it full-time, and has crowd-funded $US1,480 for it as of writing.
Jason Charles, on the other hand, doesn’t have any political affiliation (he wrote his own name on the ballot in November). Charles says the White House responded too slowly when Hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2005, which is when he lost faith in the government’s ability to support citizens during emergencies.
“You don’t want to be dependent on the establishment. You want to be ready to rock ‘n’ roll,” he says.
Charles lives in an apartment with his wife, two sons, and daughter in Harlem. He doesn’t own any guns because it’s difficult and expensive to obtain a firearm permit in New York City. Instead, Charles has 100 knives and three Samurai swords. He shows me one $US300 handmade knife — the most expensive piece of equipment he owns.
Charles started prepping in 2010, after he read William Forstchen’s “One Second After,” a novel that describes a man’s efforts to save his family in post-apocalyptic North Carolina.
“There was one part when he says, ‘I should have gotten more. I should have gotten more food,’ and it got me thinking, I never want that to happen to my kids,” he says.
Over the past seven years, Charles has amassed nearly $US20,000 worth of supplies and gear, including three vests, a bullet-proof breast plate, dozens of Ramen packets, nylon-silk tarps, two water filtration systems, extra clothing, an ax, a crossbow, a dehydrator, a hammock, a dozen military-grade backpacks, a few first aid kits and blankets, two radios, and “canteens out the arse.”
He stores most of this in what he calls his “end-of-the-world closet.” In 2013, he also got a 100-square-foot storage unit in the Bronx to hold first-aid supplies, backpacks, gas masks, a raft, detergent, boxes of latex gloves, a generator, and a year’s worth of food with a 20-year shelf life. (The unit also stores his family’s Christmas decorations.)
Not all members of the NYC Preppers Network have this much stuff, however. And Shane Hobel of the Mountain Scout Survival School says he has plenty of students that don’t consider themselves preppers at all.
But Hobel says he’s noticed more of his students “are waking up and realising that no one is going to save them, so they better figure out how to do it themselves.”
This spring, he plans to open a second, larger school, the “Mountain Scout Earth School,” in East Fishkill, New York.
Charles, meanwhile, is planning to practice the kinds of skills Hobel teaches on an upcoming solo overnight trip. He’s only bringing a tarp, wool blanket, and supplies to make fire.
I ask him to name his worst fear.
“Nothing,” Charles says. “We’re ready for anything and all of it.”