The tiny house that Bryan Korbel is building in his Columbia Heights driveway will have all the comforts of a 260-square-foot home.
There’ll be a shower with an on-demand water heater, a microwave oven, stove, composting toilet, satellite dish and power provided by solar panels. It’s being built on a trailer, so it can be towed anywhere.
Korbel’s self-sufficient micro-cottage isn’t being built out of a Thoreau-esque desire to simplify, simplify, or to achieve a chic Dwell magazine minimalist aesthetic.
He’s building it for the end of the world.
When all hell breaks loose — war, natural disaster, a breakdown in civil society — Korbel will hitch his house on wheels to a 1972 Ford F100 pickup. (That’s before the advent of computerized car systems, which Korbel says will be fried by the electromagnetic pulse created by a nuclear blast.)
He’ll haul the structure and his family to a patch of land he has north of Hinckley, Minn., stopping to get supplies he’s cached along the way in PVC tubes buried underground. He’s prepared, he believes, to ride out anything that man or nature might throw at him.
Korbel, 53, is a prepper, of course, that breed of person who stockpiles food, toilet paper and ammunition to last not days, but months — just in case.
Preppers see themselves as prudent, sensible ants in a world of feckless grasshoppers, even while they recognize that others consider them paranoid conspiracy theorists and doomsday prophets.
“My wife gave me the nickname Mad Max,” Korbel said. “My brother, he thinks it’s nuts. He’s lazy. I already know he’s going to be knocking on my door.”
Predictions that the end is near are as old as Noah. More modern manifestations have included people who felt the need to build home fallout shelters during the Cold War and pessimists who feared the worst from a Y2K collapse. Events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have continued to fuel fears.
The latest bad news: This year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decided to reset its famous Doomsday Clock — “a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe ” — from three minutes to only 2½ minutes before midnight.
The scientific worrywarts cited tensions between the U.S. and Russia, North Korean nuclear tests, climate change, a rise in “strident nationalism” and “intemperate statements” from President Donald Trump and even “lethal autonomous weapons systems” — yeah, killer robots — among the looming existential threats to humanity.
According to the Bulletin scientists, in the 70-year history of the Doomsday Clock, the last time things have been this bad for the planet was 1953, just after the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed the first hydrogen bombs. At that time, the scientists deemed we were only two minutes to apocalypse.
Selling peace of mind
No wonder Costco is selling $3,399.99 packages of freeze-dried and dehydrated emergency foods that promise 31,500 total servings, enough to feed four people for a year, with a shelf life of up to 25 years. The food shipment arrives on a pallet that is “black-wrapped for security and privacy.”
Or you could buy end-of-the-world supplies from a specialty retailer such as Safecastle.com.
Safecastle was started by Prior Lake resident Vic Rantala after 9/11 because he saw a niche for an online source of affordable, quality, long-term stored food.
The company has since branched out to sell surveillance robots, radiation detectors, folding “bug-out” bicycles intended for paratroopers and a 35-piece pet survival kit designed for a “CATastrophe.”
“We sell stuff nobody else sells,” Rantala said.
You can even buy an underground fallout shelter that costs more than $100,000.
“We early on developed a relationship with a steel plate shelter builder in Louisiana,” Rantala said. “Our builder has done seven-figure bunkers for people.”
He said his bestseller is something homier: canned, cooked bacon with a shelf life of more than 10 years.
Rantala, 59, said his background has included service in the Army, intelligence work for the government and communications and consulting for corporations. But selling prepping gear has become “kind of like a life’s mission.”
The shelters he’s sold have saved lives in tornadoes, he said. Some of the food he’s sold to preppers ended up being eaten when the disaster turned out to be a job loss.
“We sell peace of mind to people,” Rantala said.
Even though he sold the company a couple of years ago, he continues to work for it. He said sales are close to $50 million a year.
He estimates that as many as “10 percent of the population are into prepping these days,” although he admits figures can be fuzzy because preppers are notoriously secretive about their preparations.
“Sometimes you don’t even tell your family members,” he said. “It can be a little bit of an obsession, I have to admit.”
Nuts or narrative
“It’s good to have something stored away,” said Peter Behrens, a psychologist who recently retired as a professor at Penn State University in Lehigh Valley, Pa. “Some 72 hours’ worth of food is great.”
But he said prepping can turn into a “non-substance pathology,” similar to hoarding and excessive gambling, when taken to the extreme.
“A lot of people get into this as a pastime,” he said. But he said, “It’s a slippery slope to becoming irrational and aggressive.”
Behrens said prepping is cause for concern if a person starts hoarding firearms and ammunition and if more than 10 percent of a person’s income is devoted to prepping. And he warns that prepping can be similar to being in a cult if a person gives up long-standing relationships with friends and family members to associate only with other preppers.
“This is a situation that revolves around anxiety,” he said. “It doesn’t match with rational behavior.”
But Richard G. Mitchell, who studied survivalists as a sociology professor at Oregon State University, said preppers are people who may just want to resist a humdrum life of comfort and consumption. They want to create a personal narrative of themselves as the rugged individual who’s going to survive disaster.
“They want a place where they feel meaningful,” he said. “Survivalism is a storytelling process. There’s a certain satisfaction to that.”
He added, “These are people who are hobbyists. They’re amused by the process. They’re entertained by it. They’re proud of it. They’re nuts in the sense that they’ve not accepted the status quo.”
Knowing he’ll survive
Korbel has stored enough beans, lentils, rice, pasta and soup to feed his wife and their two sons still living at home for a year and a half. He’s prepared to grow his own vegetables, mill his own grain and vacuum-seal the foods he’s preserving.
“These are good for 50 years,” Korbel said, showing off the homemade pemmican balls he’s made of beef, peanut butter and nuts.
He stores a couple hundred gallons of water and enough gasoline to fill his truck tank three times. He’s got gas masks that he bought at Fleet Farm, and suits to protect against a chemical attack that he bought online. There are weather radios, two-way radios and first aid kits on every level of his house. The upper floor has escape ladders.
He lives about 4½ miles from the center of Minneapolis, a little too close in case a nuclear bomb goes off in the city center. Ten miles would be better, he said. But his wife is happy living in Columbia Heights, and the mortgage is almost paid off.
“Yeah, there’d be severe burns, structures coming down. But still survivable,” he said.
Among the things that worry him are tornadoes, civil unrest, racial tensions, terrorists, conflict with Russia, a government that “goes rogue.”
“I wouldn’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist. But I do think about it a lot,” he said. “If a comet lands on me, I’m not going to worry about it.
“My worst fear would be a financial breakdown” and a collapse of the monetary system, he said. “You’ve got people bartering in gold, silver, jewels.” Or ammunition.
Korbel has set aside some of that as well, along with handguns, rifles and shotguns.
“I also have compound bows. My boys, they’ve trained in compound bows. My wife is trained in that,” he said.
“You need to defend your property and yourself,” he said. But he said, “I’m not prepping for a war. I’m not trying to hide anything. I’m not trying to overthrow the government. I don’t want to get shot. I don’t want to shoot anyone.”
Korbel is a Metro Transit driver and an Army veteran who used to work as a carpenter, a contractor and a semitrailer truck driver. He’s been married 25 years, and his wife is a nurse.
“He likes to be our protector,” Betsy Korbel said. “There’s a lot worse things to be doing.”
Korbel said he’s been a prepper about 12 years. Last year, he estimates, he spent about $7,000 on the activity.
“When I turn 80, I might turn around and look at this stuff and I might say, ‘OK, maybe I bought too much,’ ” he said.
But he said he pays for prepping with side income he gets from recycling metals from old laptops and wires and driving for a food delivery service.
“I love it,” Korbel said of his preoccupation with preparing. “It’s something I enjoy.”
“I know I’m going to be able to survive,” he said.