Surviving Disaster: The NYC Prepper’s Network Knew This Day Would Come
By BETH HARPAZ
Imagine a disaster has killed thousands of New Yorkers. You’re in survival mode, doing whatever’s necessary to save your family. You stock up on nonperishable food, medicine, and other essentials; you’re torn between riding it out in your tiny apartment, or fleeing to an isolated area where you might be safer. Either way, you can’t count on the government to help.
Until the pandemic, the notion that New York or the world could experience such a scenario was written off as paranoid fantasy or science fiction. But a group of New Yorkers called “preppers” has been expecting this for years. Professor Anna Maria Bounds (Queens College) profiles this community in her recent book, Bracing for the Apocalypse: An Ethnographic Study of New York’s ‘Prepper’ Subculture.
Since 9/11, Bounds writes, “there has been an undercurrent of fear and anxiety in American culture.” That fear has been reinforced by crisis after crisis, including terror attacks, mass shootings, hurricanes, blackouts, the Great Recession, the Ebola scare, and now—although Bounds’ research was completed in 2018—the pandemic and the attempted coup by right-wing fanatics in Washington, D.C.
“As a result of this unpredictability, some New Yorkers are now looking beyond governmental assistance to protect their families,” she writes. As one prepper told her, “There is no cavalry coming. … You have to fend for yourself.”
But urban preppers differ from the stereotype of rural white survivalists stockpiling weapons and building bunkers. For one thing, Bounds reports, the nearly 500 members of the NYC Prepper’s Network are mostly people of color. Many of them personally experienced disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. Others were motivated to become preppers by the “challenges of growing up in poor and unsafe neighborhoods” where they had to plan for “lean times and emergencies.”
Unlike rural survivalists, city dwellers also don’t have big houses or land, so they find ways to store supplies in small apartments. Many lack experience with the outdoors, so training sessions are held to teach skills like foraging. Bounds attended these classes and also took part in weekend excursions where preppers built fires, pitched tents, and lived on only what they could carry in a go-bag. These trips “expose preppers to the stress of surviving in a difficult, unfamiliar situation” where they must “leave behind the conveniences of city life and face new challenges.” They also work on psychological skills like mindfulness and situational awareness.
Bounds found another subculture of preppers among the city’s super-rich. Their plans include luxury safe rooms and remote hideaways.
Bounds ends her book with a reference to March 2020. “Tomorrow begins day five of sheltering in place,” she writes. “My prepping knowledge might just save my life.” In a podcast taped later that spring, she said, “I wanted my book to be timely, but I don’t know if I want it to be this timely.” Noting that one of her themes was “a loss of faith in government,” she added, “The pandemic has certainly confirmed that.”