What if?


What if our water supply becomes contaminated? What if a tornado devastates your town? What if something goes haywire at the nuclear plant? What if the power grid fails — whether due to a human mistake, a terrorist attack or a solar flare? Oh! Here’s a good one: What if you lose your job?

Bottom line: Could you survive with what you have in the house, right now, for a month? Longer?

Preppers can, and they think everyone should be able to make the same claim.

Despite TV shows like “Doomsday Preppers,” where people keep buckets of broken glass by the door to repel would-be invaders or test homemade weapons on pig carcasses, many preppers seem more like grown-up Boy Scouts, or maybe 21st-century hybrids of Daniel Boone and MacGyver, with some Ma Ingalls for good measure. They’re not wild about being called survivalists.

“People who are preppers are more like hippies than people on the TV show,” said Nick Olsen who, in the same breath, said he didn’t want to be considered a hippie. What he meant is that preppers are reviving the “back to the land” ethic of the 1960s, eager to learn about solar power, wind power, water filtration, gardening, canning, bee-keeping, butchering, food dehydration, ham radios, hydroponics, camping.

“People are trying to be more self-sufficient,” Olsen said. “We don’t live in fear our whole lives. We’re prepared.”

Then, after a pause, he added: “What we fear, and no offense intended, are people like you.”

There are millions of “like yous” — people who believe cellphones always work, credit cards always scan, cars always start, toilets always flush and grocery stores always have plenty of bacon. They are people who, when the water main broke in Minneapolis earlier this month, had no stash of bottled water under their desks.

Not like John Barrett who, in addition to having plenty of water at his desk, also had food and a flashlight.

His personal motto: “You can’t prepare for everything, but you can always be more prepared.”

Barrett, an assistant vice president of public relations at U.S. Bank, lives in Roseville. The fact that he’s willing to divulge his city sets him apart from more hard-core preppers whose first rule is: Never let anyone know you’re a prepper. While his home may not withstand Armageddon, it houses an impressive supply of ramen noodles, canned hams, Sterno canisters, water jugs and those little soaps you get in hotels, collected over the years.

“I probably went a little overboard, but I feel good about it,” he said. “Crises change. The way I look at it, if people are prepared even a little bit, then there are not that many crises.”

From fallout shelters to solar power

Preppers are nothing new. People who had fallout shelters during the Cold War were preppers. Vigilance flagged, then surged again with Y2K concerns about rolling over into the new century. Again, fretting faded, only to revive after the Sept. 11 attacks, when terrorism suddenly felt local. In 2008, the American Preppers Network was founded (www.americanpreppersnetwork.com) to guide people in preparing for everything from a super volcano to economic collapse.

From its website: “The APN philosophy on preparedness is simply to adapt your life to be more self-reliant so that you are able to sustain your family through any calamity and come out on the other side safely.”

Minnesotans may have a leg up on other parts of the country when it comes to survival because we naturally tend to squirrel away stuff. We know that a blizzard might arrive in the night. A cloudburst could stall over Duluth.

“You buy insurance for your car,” said Olsen. “You buy health insurance for your body. Why wouldn’t you buy a supply of food for when” — and we’ll paraphrase here — a certain substance hits the fan?

Olsen, a no-nonsense salesman known in the “ready for anything” community as Sgt. Prepper, would rather not broadcast where he lives. Nonetheless, he decided to become a spokesman for prepping after organizing the first Survival Preppers Expo in Bloomington last month. It was so successful that he’s organizing another from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 2 at the National Sports Center in Blaine (www.survivalpreppersexpo.com). “It’s become a mission,” he said.

While sharing information is one goal, so is clearing up some misunderstandings. For instance, he said, no one walked into the last expo decked out in camouflage gear. Advance publicity clearly stated that politics have no place there. Nor do guns. “There already are gun shows,” Olsen said.

Given the desire for secrecy among some — the place cleared out when TV cameras arrived — it’s impossible to know how many basements are stocked with matches, generators, tarps and dehydrated potatoes. Olsen said he got into prepping gradually, with his wife and five kids choosing a new skill to learn each year.

We’re in this together

Barrett’s path is similar, although he credits being a Boy Scout, which he continues today as merit badge counselor for wilderness survival and emergency preparedness. Scouting also taught him another ethic: “As a Boy Scout, you want to do the good deed daily. I ask my kids, ‘Why are we prepared?’ and they know: To help others.”

Olsen voiced a similar ethic: “You can do more together than you can do separately.”

The ebullient Barrett — he’s been singing in barbershop groups for 35 years — has worked with his neighbors so people know who has a wrench set, chainsaw, a generator. For him, it’s just common sense that will help everyone cope with the most likely scenarios: floods, power outages, earthquakes or terrorism.

“Doomsday preppers are waiting for the comet to hit,” he said. “But I think, do we want to be here after the comet hits?

“I would say if there’s a conspiracy, it’s between Mother Nature, Father Time and Murphy of Murphy’s Law,” he added, then smiled. “That’s not to say there aren’t aliens and yetis, but they’re not out to get us. They’re just out there.”

Bottom line: The best strategy for preparedness is to be aware of your surroundings and, as Barrett has taught his three sons, “the most important thing to pack is your brain — pack it full of all you need to know.”

Besides, if a community’s fan ever does become spattered, Barrett envisions that one of the bigger hurdles will be something that few people consider: Boredom.

That’s why his shelves are stacked with board games. He has multiple decks of cards. “We may not have power, you know,” he said. “And who knows how to whittle anymore?”