More Iowans prepare for Maya doomsday, other disaster by stockpiling food, supplies

John Davis fully expects to wake up to a normal Saturday.

Like most Americans, he thinks the idea that the Maya calendar foretells an apocalypse on Dec. 21, 2012, “is a bunch of bunk.” The 63-year-old resident of Hamburg in southwest Iowa doesn’t waste time worrying about ancient calendars when there are real disasters for which to prepare.

Davis is part of the movement of so-called “preppers,” who believe a disaster, natural or man-made, will at some point force them to fend for themselves.

And prepared Davis is. He’s amassed hundreds of pounds of food — canned goods, prepackaged meals and five-gallon containers of flour, cornmeal, sugar, rice and beans — enough to last 18 months or more.

A ground well and a generator will provide his home with water and power if utilities are cut. Knowledge of the best game trails and fishing holes in the area will keep him fed for as long as he needs.

With fears ranging from a socialist government takeover to a climate-jolting super volcano, the most ardent preppers stockpile food and weapons, build bunkers and assemble emergency packs so they can “bug out” or leave everything behind at a moment’s notice.

The movement gained more notice recently with shows like the National Geographic channel’s “Doomsday Preppers,” a reality-drama series that follows the lives of families preparing for apocalyptic disasters.

Most preppers in Iowa, however, are more pragmatic, say Davis and others who spoke to The Des Moines Register.

Few gave weight to the supposed Maya doomsday. Most stock up to ready their families for more common disasters like tornadoes, floods or the loss of a job.

In fact, most shy away from labels like “prepper” or “survivalist,” which they say evoke images of conspiracy theorists and gun-crazed loons.

“Self-reliance” is the more preferred term.

It’s hard to say how many preppers there are across the country or in Iowa.

A poll done for the National Geographic Channel in September indicated that 28 percent of Americans knew one.

The American Preppers Network, one of several national organizations, has more than 26,000 members, according to its website.

Davis serves as the Midwest coordinator for the preppers network. As a National Public Radio-listening Democrat, Davis acknowledges he’s an outlier in a movement generally thought of as conservative.

He served 21 years in the Navy before going into public administration. In 1993 he was pegged by the Clinton administration for a position on the National Performance Review commission.

Davis has written his own “Bug Out Bible,” a 23-page prepping manual. The first three steps are developing a food storage program, buying a water filter and picking the perfect survival gun for hunting and protection.

Beyond that, it gets more complicated: herbal medicine, ham radios and survival bartering.

Davis has handed out more than 1,000 of the manuals to new preppers, of which there are plenty these days.

Robert O’Brien, a Des Moines restaurant manager, co-founded the Des Moines Preppers Network in July. The group has grown to nearly 90 members. There are farmers, nurses, business professionals and a former Statehouse candidate.

Each month, the group meets and tackles a new skill, such as CPR, food storage and firearm safety. O’Brien started prepping after Hurricane Katrina. His wife was skeptical, so they started small, gardening and canning their own food. Now they have filled a corner of their basement with enough food to last their family of four about nine months.

“For us, prepping is more or less just living like our grandparents did years ago,” he said. “It’s being more self-reliant.”

There’s no agreement among preppers about what disaster is most imminent. It’s best to be prepared for anything, they say.

Solar flares, climate-jolting volcanoes and nuclear blasts that fry electronics are potential extreme disasters, O’Brien said.

“I’m not so much worried about all that,” he said. “I’m worried about if I lost my job or my kid gets hurt.”

Davis’ primary concern is a global economic collapse. The “fiscal cliff” — a combination of federal government spending cuts and tax increases on the that will take effect next month unless Congress acts — would sap the economy, but the bigger threat looms overseas, he said.

With much of Europe entering a double-dip recession, Davis worries that the Euro will collapse, shattering the global monetary system, leaving paper money worthless and bringing trade to a halt.

“It will make 2008 look like nothing,” he said.

O’Brien and Davis declined a reporter’s requests to view their emergency supplies. Several other preppers declined to speak on the record. The Des Moines Preppers Network has closed its meetings to reporters.

There’s a tactical reason for all the privacy. By revealing the location of their homes and supplies, preppers would make themselves targets of looters in a disaster.

But beyond the tactics, many preppers simply don’t want their neighbors and employers to know about their lifestyle.

There’s a stigma about prepping. Shows like “Doomsday Preppers” perpetuate the stereotype that preppers are militaristic bunker-dwellers or fringe right-wing outcasts, they say.

“I think those shows bring out the worst in people,” O’Brien said. “It’s all basically for ratings.”

Stigma or not, the prepping industry is thriving. Preparing to survive the end of the world as we know it isn’t cheap, after all. First there’s the food, shelter and weapons. Then there’s water filtration systems, medical supplies, a vehicle with extra fuel capacity and maybe even a hydroponic indoor garden.

Scott Valencia is an Iowan who has made a second career in the prepping industry. Valencia co-founded the Red Shed Media Group, which puts on four to five self-reliance expos a year and produces prepping podcasts. Known on air as Bubba DaVinci, Valencia hosts a show about prepping and survivalist literature.

Valencia and his partners plan to host a self-reliance expo in Des Moines this February.

The goal is to draw 2,000 to 4,000 people.

Prepping booms are nothing new. Americans dug bunkers during the Cold War and stockpiled rations before Y2K. The Great Recession and even more recently, superstorm Sandy, further bolstered interest in prepping, Valencia said.

“It’s kind of cyclical,” he said. “Every time there is a major recession or something, I think people get a little more into it.”

Doomsday predictions are, of course, not new either.

“People have been predicting doomsdays probably for as long as there have been people,” said Stephanie Madon, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

Doomsday predictions, at the core, are about finding meaning in one’s life, Madon said.

All humans, on some level, know they will die, which can cause extreme anxiety. Believing the world will end and that you will be saved is one way to deal with that anxiety, she said.

“It gives people a sense of specialness, a sense of meaning in what would otherwise be a very meaningless existence,” she said.

When asked whether the time and money spent prepping would all be a waste if he never ends up facing a major disaster, Davis didn’t balk.

“It’s an insurance policy,” he said. “It’s just being very practical.”