Investing in the End of the World

How cash-flush preppers are trying to up their odds of disaster survival

Aviva Drescher’s first child was just 1 month old when the planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11. The Real Housewives of New York City star—a lifetime New Yorker—watched the events unfold with horror.

“I just wanted to protect my young,” she told The Observer, adding that her anxieties soon expanded. What about biological warfare? If terrorists could kill thousands of people with a couple of box cutters, what would happen if the Ebola virus were dropped in Central Park?

She began preparing for the worst.

“I bought body gear, really expensive body gear, like the kind used by the Army. I went online and researched gas masks. I bought a gas tent for my baby. I was so crazy that when I took my baby out, I would keep a gas mask in the stroller. I stocked up on Cipro,” she said. (Cipro is used to treat people exposed to anthrax.) “I bought a bunch of giant rafts to go down the East River. Though I know,” she sighed, “all the big shots will probably have private planes and helicopters.”

Arguably, Drescher and her husband, Reid Drescher, president and CEO of the investment firm Spencer Clarke LLC, are big shots. So much so, in fact, that when Drescher revealed her “prepping” habits on camera, it created a pop-culture paradox, a confluence of zeitgeists.
Thanks to shows such as National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers, a cultural archetype of the new survivalist has emerged: bearded men and their sons living in the backwoods, Deliverance-style. So to discover a “prepper” among the rich, white women of New York’s titular reality show was unsettlingly out of place. It was so … uncouth.

But maybe not unreasonable. With 9/11 seared into the city’s emotional memory, the recent devastation of Superstorm Sandy and the alarming updates about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, one would have to already be living in a soundproof cave to ignore the warning sirens.

And yet, during last fall’s Sandy madness, a shocking number of New York’s well-to-do insisted on staying put, not wanting to acknowledge even the briefest disruption of their luxurious lifestyles. Socialite Tinsley Mortimer embodied this attitude as she weathered the storm on the Upper East Side by going to her friend’s apartment … in the same building. “We just hung out in her [apartment] with our dogs and made pasta and ate Halloween candy,” she said.

It’s hard to believe this is willful ignorance. After all, should society collapse, it’s the upper crust that has the most to lose (we all saw Bane playing Robespierre in the latest Batman film). Perhaps it’s more of a coping mechanism, because when it’s time to “get out of Dodge,” money may not equal survival.

Whether money plus prepping equals survival, however, is an entirely different story.

“Be prepared” isn’t just for Boy Scouts

Raised upstate, Milo (not his real name) is a 45-year-old boutique equities trader who believes the onus is on the individual to protect himself and his family. “What became clear to me is that being prepared for the unexpected is the best position you can be in,” said Milo, who received his first firearm when he was 13.

After witnessing the riots in Los Angeles in the 1990s and the blackout of 2003 in New York, Milo realized that even non-apocalyptic scenarios could turn a city upside down. “You saw it happen with Sandy downtown. The police weren’t able to get to people. People had to leave their doors unlocked so their neighbors could get in, and there would be ransacking of apartments in groups of five, six, seven,” he said. “Hell, I’d be pretty scared if I was down there.”

Of course, he would never be down there. Like Drescher, Milo is ready for the worst—with his go bag, which is fully stocked. “Water, water purification tablets, a pretty extensive first-aid kit, a lighter, lighter fluid, matches and a flint stone, just in case,” he said. “Condoms, a flashlight, a lantern, extra batteries, emergency blankets, a change of clothes, MREs [Meals Ready to Eat], $5,000 cash, mostly kept in 10s or 20s, a combat knife, a Taser and fishing equipment. He also has a footlocker at his uncle’s place in the Hamptons (which is also where Drescher intends to go in an emergency), filled with more money, supplies and guns.

As for transportation, Milo says he has a plan to buy his way off the island if the bridges and tunnels are blocked. “There’d be somebody [down by the docks] that I knew to take us away from the city.”

He has even had the family perform dry runs of his escape plans and pays extra to keep his car on the ground floor of his garage. “The most important thing is to stay together as a family, that we aren’t just running around panicking.”

Bunkers for every lifestyle

The question for others—assuming they make it out of the city—is: Where do you go next? Or as the sales pitch from Robert Vicino begins, “How do you prepare for the end of the world when you’re literally living at ground zero?”

Vicino is the founder of the Vivos Group, a network of luxury bunkers across the U.S. (Europe is pending) where, for $50,000, you can buy yourself co-ownership in what the former real estate salesman is calling “life assurance.” “We have 25,000 members around the world,” Vicino said, adding that the majority of his clients—whom he refers to as “middle class”—reside in densely populated cities.

“We understand that not everyone is very rich, or else they’d have their own bunker,” Vicino said. “Vivos is designed for the middle class—people who make six but maybe not seven figures. Mainly we see people who are highly intelligent and well-educated: doctors, lawyers and Wall Street types, sure.”

Vicino is in the process of building two Vivos facilities in upstate New York, which seems to attest to the fact that locals are investing in their end-of-the-world experience. Abandoned missile silos are being reimagined as luxury bunkers, like Larry Hall’s Survival Condo Project in Kansas. But the real hidden gem of Cold War opulence is the Atlas F missile silo luxury home, located in the Adirondacks and currently on the market for $3.03 million. The estate includes its own tarmac on which to land your superjet after a quick and convenient puddle-jump.

What Vivos and these other upscale survival housing outfits are really selling, though, is the idea of a comfortable post-apocalyptic existence: This isn’t your mom and pop’s Cold War backyard bunker. Across the U.S., six Vivos facilities are in development; the smallest is 10,000 square feet and holds 80 people, while the largest is 120,000 square feet and holds 1,000.

For Milo, preparation for the unthinkable is a matter of simple logic. “I’m a big proponent of having stuff and not needing it, rather than not having it and needing it,” Milo said. “None of my friends do this. They think I was out of my mind. Though I joke with them, ‘When this happens, you’ll be trying to get to my apartment.’”

While reporting this story, The Observer ran into actor Norman Reedus one night at the Spotted Pig. Reedus plays Daryl Dixon on AMC’s smash hit The Walking Dead; who better, we figured, to compare prepping plans with than a man who spends his days pretending it’s the zombie apocalypse? But Reedus was dubious about the whole endeavor. “I think the prepping movement is kind of over,” he said. “I have friends in the city who do it, but like, if it happens I’m just going to grab my kid, my guns, my motorcycle and two grand from a hidden safe.”
“That’s it?” we wondered. “What about amoxicillin or Cipro?”

The actor looked confused. “Once you are bitten, antibiotics won’t help you.”

We clarified: We weren’t talking about just a zombie scenario. Still, the answer was no. “Anything you have will be stolen if you can’t protect yourself. The cash will last you two weeks, and then it’s a matter of guns,” he said.

We floated the idea of Vivos.

“No bunkers,” he said. “Fuck bunkers. They can always gas you out of bunkers.”

Ignoring the question of who “they” might be, Reedus raised a good point. High-end prepping may take you so far, but most doomsday scenarios act as a great equalizer: No matter how many go bags you pack, how much cash you carry or how many escape routes you plan, surviving the chaos will most likely come down to nonmonetary factors, like who has the least to lose, who has the most guns and who has the constitution to make those tough decisions along the way—survival of the fittest being one of those things that money still can’t buy.