The current recession has not been kind to the construction business. The number of new homes being built has sunk to historic lows – down some 75 percent from 2006 – and in recent years unemployment among construction workers has approached 25 percent. Yet one corner of the industry has benefited from the financial tumult and the fear of social unrest that accompanies it. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the fallout shelter is back.
Last year, for instance, Jay Whimpey, a 53-year-old salesman, bought a 50-foot-long steel cylinder from a company called Utah Shelter Systems, in Draper, Utah, and, over four days, buried it 10 feet under a slice of rural land he owns south of Salt Lake City. The bunker cost Whimpey more than $60,000. It's 10 feet in diameter, includes a bathtub and a wood-burning stove, and can sleep 10 people. Whimpey has stocked it with rice and beans and a DVD player. "It's my underground mountain cabin," he says. "I can see all sorts of disaster scenarios, and as far as I'm concerned, they're becoming more likely."
Whimpey is far from unique. Across the country, manufacturers of disaster shelters are reporting dramatic increases in sales. Brian Camden, president of Hardened Structures, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says sales are up nearly 200 percent since 2008; his company has built 45 shelters this year, and the units are now installed from North Carolina to California. Texas-based Radius Engineering reports that business has doubled in each of the past five years – a 1,500 percent increase. Every year the company builds upwards of 150 shelters, and last year it posted revenue of $31 million. To accommodate the sudden demand, Radius recently expanded its production plant by 50,000 square feet.
On the whole, buyers aren't paranoid apocalyptic theorists – adherents of the ancient Mayan calendar, for example, who believe doomsday will arrive on December 21, 2012 – but, like Whimpey, educated individuals who instead cite America's faltering economy, Iran's covert nuclear program, unrest in the Middle East, and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan as reasons for needing a contingency cave. "Most of our clients are attorneys, businessmen, and doctors," says Paul Seyfried, co-owner of Utah Shelter Systems. "Throw in a few bankers, of late." Many buyers live in major cities along the East Coast, where the terror alert is persistently high, and in Texas and California, where border-induced anxiety runs deep.
Fallout shelters first found popularity during the nuclear arms race of the 1950s and '60s, when terms like "mutual assured destruction" ricocheted across the radio waves. In 1961, President Kennedy exhorted America to construct them – "We owe that kind of insurance to our families and to our country," he said – and it did: By 1965, the country had fashioned some 200,000 fallout shelters. Those concrete bunkers are now largely abandoned, cobwebbed domiciles no longer stocked with canned goods. Today's iterations embrace significant advances in security and comfort, with price tags to match.
The least-expensive model sold by Radius Engineering costs $112,000. It's a prefabricated shelter that accommodates eight people and includes a full-scale kitchen and a shower. Walton McCarthy, the company's president and the author of the 443-page Principles of Protection, hermetically seals his ovoid pods eight feet below the surface. Each is equipped with a 400-gallon septic tank, two generators – one diesel, another operated by hand-crank – and an internal air-filtration system that blocks radioactive gases and agents of chemical and biological warfare. A custom-dug well supplies fresh water. Together, these amenities provide residents with six months of easy subterranean living.
For $325,000, Camden's Hardened Structures offers the Genesis, a model originally designed for the military but now marketed for TEOTWAWKI events, industry shorthand for "The End of the World As We Know It." The Genesis has solid-steel blast doors, walls that can withstand a direct hit from a mortar shell, and an outer layer capable of resisting an electromagnetic pulse – a blast of energy, often created by nuclear bombs, that knocks out electrical equipment. The shelter is also designed to protect against 450-mph winds, several earthquakes in succession, complete underwater submersion for four days, and any airborne debris weighing up to 500 pounds. What's more, it can be armed with offensive power. "We're able to gas anyone who approaches the outside door," says Camden. Like oversize Legos, multiple Genesis units can be interlocked, creating the equivalent of a sunken McMansion.
There are those, however, who worry that life might get lonely underground, and so a California-based entrepreneur named Robert Vicino has created the first fallout shelters modeled on a cooperative, building two massive complexes in Indiana and Nebraska, with plans for three more in Wyoming, New York, and, as he puts it, "somewhere in the Carolinas." Vicino calls his shelter system Vivos (Latin for "alive"), and each facility typically houses 1,000 people. Spots inside, which include private quarters with beds, a bathroom, and a kitchen, as well as access to a communal living space, start at $25,000. Furnished with enough food and water for one year, each shelter has a wine cellar, a theater room, and even medical and dental facilities – with the surgeons and dentists to staff them.
Vivos screens each applicant through a multistage process that begins with an hourlong phone interview – "To weed out the wackos," Vicino says. When it's time to go underground, a management board composed of select residents will assume oversight of the shelters, enforcing rules and arbitrating disputes. Just in case, each shelter will have an armed security force and a prison cell. Vicino says that he has received 20,000 applications and accepted "fewer than 1,000 but more than 500." Membership is tantamount to owning private property. Vicino adds, "It can be sold, willed, or gifted. However, all beneficiaries will be subject to the same rigorous screening process." The communal model has lately gained further traction: The adult-entertainment company Pink Visual recently announced plans for a shelter that will house 1,500 people; its comforts will involve "multiple fully-stocked bars, an enormous performing stage, and a sophisticated content production studio."
Even with all the recent public interest in fallout shelters, secrecy continues to pervade the industry. No one is much interested in fighting off desperate neighbors after society crumbles. "It's all on a strict need-to-know basis," says Camden of his building process. "Whenever possible, we engage in covert construction, clandestine contracting, and misdirection." His company, for example, always uses out-of-town construction crews in order to limit the number of locals who know the location of any shelter.
McCarthy, who has a degree in engineering from Montana State University, argues that shelter owners don't want a record of their purchases because federal law authorizes the government to commandeer such sanctuaries in times of national emergency. "We always come in on Friday night and install it on the weekend while the government is shut down," says McCarthy. "On Monday morning, the neighbors can call whomever they want. At that point, it's in the ground." And there it will wait for the end-time to come.