Disaster preparedness, once the province of fringe groups and so-called preppers convinced doomsday was at hand, has a new face.
A renewed interest in self-reliance is driving city dwellers and suburbanites to stock their homes and cars for emergencies, owners of disaster-preparedness businesses say. Blame supply-chain shortages and the shock of empty grocery shelves during the pandemic, or more recent natural disasters and tense global events.
Those business owners and survival-training coaches say they are seeing a new kind of customer looking to make sure they can get through a few days or weeks without power or fresh water in the event of a flood, fire or other calamity. These customers don’t fit the stereotype of so-called doomsday preppers stocking bunkers with ammunition and gas masks to survive an apocalypse.
Surveys and rising sales of prefabricated disaster kits indicate that Americans are more apt to keep emergency supplies on hand than they were a few years ago. Roughly a third of the 2,179 U.S. adults surveyed by financial-services company Finder in April said they spent an average of $149 on items including nonperishable food, medical supplies and cases of water in the past year. That is up from about 20% who said they did so in 2020.
Those newly packing go-bags and planning emergency escape routes say they used to consider such preparations as overly fearful. Now, they say not doing so is naive.
Rick Leesmann wants to be clear: He isn’t a bunker guy.
“I’m a PlayStation 5, love-my-comfort guy,” the 39-year-old healthcare information-technology worker says. If you told him a few years ago that he would have four pre-packed “bug-out bags” hanging in his Kansas City, Mo., pantry, he wouldn’t have believed it. They are filled with snacks, flashlights, water and coloring books for his two young sons.
After the Covid-19 pandemic, the wars in Ukraine and now Israel, along with wildfires in Canada and Lahaina, Leesmann says he avoids panicking about his family’s safety by focusing on what he can control.
“It’s taking rational steps to ensure we have the ability to act quickly in those moments,” he says. He thinks about the go bags only when he checks the batteries and food expiration dates twice a year – or catches his boys using the flashlights as Jedi lightsabers.
A WIDESPREAD SHIFT
Reality shows such as “Doomsday Preppers” portray disaster-obsessed people preparing for the worst, but many people now preparing for emergencies say they simply want to check an item off their mental worry list.
“It’s less that we’re trying to survive the end of the world, and more that we have no idea when an earthquake or tornado is going to happen,” Leesmann says.
Numerous companies selling boutique preparedness packs have popped up in recent years to meet what they say is demand from people who want to be ready for an emergency, without having to do the assembly and research themselves.
Preppi, whose kits look like classic doctor’s bags, reports year-to-date sales up 29% from 2022. For Judy—whose bright-orange disaster packs start at $195—year-over-year sales quadrupled in June, when wildfire smoke blanketed the Northeast. Both brands include hand-crank radios, face masks, nonperishable food, first-aid kits and other gear in their bags.
Yeti, a brand more commonly associated with keeping beers cold, recently teamed with emergency-prep company Uncharted Supply Co. for a $730 survival kit that includes a Mylar tent and water-filtration system. Uncharted’s chief executive, Christian Schauf, says the company is on track for its best sales year since its founding in 2016.
Alexjandria Edwards says keeping a tent, sleeping bag and water-filtration system in her New York City apartment can sometimes feel silly. After viewing videos about emergency preparedness on social media, the 28-year-old marketing manager at an arts nonprofit purchased a disaster pack on Amazon for about $100.
“It’s actually for a family of four, but I was like, ‘You know what? Better to be safe,’” she says.
She has also been watching online tutorials on homeopathic healing and learning to grow her own windowsill vegetable garden. A vegan, she worries about the availability of food she can eat in a disaster.
When severe flooding shut down parts of the New York City transit system in September, Edwards says, she felt safer knowing she had enough supplies to shelter in place.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 122 separate disasters in the U.S. between 2016 and 2022 have killed at least 5,000 people for over $1 trillion in collective damage.
Likes, comments and shares on posts related to disaster preparedness are up 47% in the 12 months ended September 2023 from a year earlier, according to an analysis of X (formerly known as Twitter), YouTube and other social-media sites by analytics company Sprout Social. Videos tagged with #Prepper on TikTok have 1.6 billion views.
John Ramey, founder of self-reliance training site The Prepared, says his audience includes a mix of people of all races, genders and political persuasions. The breakdown is a departure from what he describes as early prepping communities’ makeup of primarily right-leaning white men.
“People are becoming more and more aware of the problems in the world and how fallible things are,” says Ramey, who lives in Boulder, Colo.
Marlon Smith’s roughly $300 Urban and Outdoor Survival classes used to attract hard-core outdoorsy types there for fun. Most attendees lately want to learn how to cope with disasters, he says.
“It’s a totally new market,” says Smith, who is based in Glen Rock, N.J., and has taught survival skills for about 20 years. He says he has received more client calls since the conflict in Israel began earlier this month. His coming 20-person training has a 10-person wait list.
Kasen James changed his mindset on preparedness after spending a panicked 10 minutes running around his Morgan Hill, Calif., home rounding up his cat, clothes and medications after a wildfire evacuation order in the summer of 2020. Now the 30-year-old copywriter keeps about $200 of supplies and a few hundred dollars of cash in his home and car. He also laid out a wildfire evacuation plan.
“I can’t control what happens, but I can have the peace of mind of being prepared,” he says.
WALL STREET JOURNAL