Why so many Americans are buying up personal bunkers
Tom Soulsby, 69, and his wife, Mary, were one of the first to buy a bunker at Vivos xPoint — the self-proclaimed “largest survival community on Earth” — near the South Dakota town of Edgemont. In 2017, he made a $25,000 down payment and signed a 99-year land lease (with fees of $1,000 per year) to occupy an elliptical-shaped, 2,200 square-foot underground concrete bunker once used as a military fortress during World War II to store weapons and ammunition.
What he got for his money is security — and not much else. Sealed by a concrete and steel blast door entrance, each shelter comes retrofitted with electrical wiring, an internal power generation system, plumbing, and walls designed to withstand a 500,000-pound internal blast. Everything else — food, entertainment, a sense of community — is up to the occupant.
Soulsby’s goal, as he explains to cultural geographer Bradley Garrett — author of the new book “Bunker: Building for the End Times” (Scribner), out Tuesday — was never to become a full-time bunker resident.
“This is just an insurance policy,” he said. “I’m going to fix it up and pass it down to my family. I hope no one ever has to use it.”
But if it becomes necessary — and with the COVID-19 pandemic and violent uprisings around the country, it seems increasingly likely to Soulsby that it will be — his bunker is well-stocked and move-in ready.
“It’s already ‘home sweet bunker’ around here,” he told Garrett.
Milton Torres, 43, who also bought an xPoint bunker in 2017, quit his lucrative IT job at Chicago’s Department of Veterans Affairs to live underground full-time.
“I just love my bunker,” he told Garrett. “I close the door and stay in there for a few days and then I can think again.”
The bunkers owned by Torres and Soulsby are both part of a complex spanning 18 square miles, or nearly three-quarters the size of Manhattan, connected by 100 miles of private road. Their neighbors include (or will include) the occupants of 574 additional private bunkers, capable of accommodating up to 10,000 people.
When Soulsby signed on the dotted line, he was one of a handful of new owners. But in 2020, Vivos xPoint has become hotly sought-after real estate. The price has jumped to $35,000, says Robert Vicino, the California developer and CEO of the Vivos Group, which launched in 2008, and bunker sales are “up over 600 percent.”
Five hundred bunkers are still available, but Vicino tells The Post they’re “currently selling about one bunker a day.”
It’s a good time to be in the bunker business — or as Garrett has dubbed them, “Dread Merchants.” There are around 3.7 million Americans prepping today on some scale, feeding a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that has become more mainstream because of the pandemic. “I expect a quarter of the country to be prepping on some level by the end of the year,” Garrett tells The Post.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cold War tensions and nuclear war anxiety caused more than 200,000 Americans to invest in fallout shelters. But it was a passing fad, and the new wave of bunker owners aren’t just driven by fears of nuclear annihilation.
A YouGov survey from last February found that nearly one in five (19 percent) Americans believe a global pandemic or climate change would bring about an apocalypse, compared to 17 percent who think humanity will be eradicated by nuclear war.
Bunker-leasing and selling companies have been popping up across the country in recent years — there’s Hardened Structures in Virginia Beach, Va., Northeast Bunkers in Pittsfield, Maine, and Atlas Survival Shelters in Sulphur Springs, Texas, to name a few — and their customer base isn’t motivated by a single imminent catastrophe.
“It’s a more general sense of disquiet in response to a greater variety of threats,” says Garrett.
Larry Hall, 63, who converted an underground Cold War nuclear missile silo in central Kansas into a 15-story inverted skyscraper, says he’s received four times the usual level of inquiries from potential buyers this year, and he believes it’s largely due to COVID-19.
“People now realize just how fragile their normal existence really is,” he tells The Post. “To this point, we now have a new level of credibility and far less people who considered us as ‘paranoid.’ ”
Garrett suspects that it’s the media, and social media in particular, that has fueled bunker interest.
“In the past, if there was a disaster somewhere, we might learn about it long after the event had passed, or never at all,” he says. “Now we’re subjected to an endless drip-feed of dread detailing every emergency, major and minor, taking place across the world. This gives us a collective sense that everything is falling apart.”
Which is a good thing for dread merchants. As Dante Vicino, 27, the Executive Director of the Vivos Group, told The Post, bunker-curious customers are “now ready to get off the proverbial fence and secure a space while they still can.”
For Larry Hall, the biggest challenge in building his Survival Condo wasn’t making sure the epoxy-hardened concrete walls were thick enough (they’re nine feet deep) or that the water reserve tanks had a minimum of 75,000 gallons (they do), but whether living underground was psychologically and socially tolerable.
Hall, an ex–government contractor and property developer, purchased a Kansas silo in 2008 for just $300,000, and in less than a decade transformed it into a luxury bolthole, where a community of 75 could survive up to five years. Assuming, of course, he could find a way to “make this place as normal as possible,” Hall explained to Garrett.
“No one wants to be reminded all the time that they are basically living in a submarine.”
He’s worked with psychologists to create that illusion of “normalcy,” he says. Where life below ground wouldn’t feel all that dissimilar from their “pre-event” life.
People now realize just how fragile their normal existence really is.
So he created a food distribution area that looked and operated similar to a grocery store above ground. “Getting food out of a box is not the same as going to a store and filling a shopping cart,” Hall tells The Post. “These senses keep your subconscious mind ‘happy.’ ”
All Survival Condo apartments come equipped with LED window screens, on which residents can display anything that puts their minds at ease. One apartment, designed to feel like a log cabin, has a six-screen window display that looks down on “a snow-capped mountain range,” Garrett writes.
Another resident, who currently resides in New York City, paid for a two-story underground “penthouse” with a view that reminds her of home.
“She had videos filmed of Central Park from her Manhattan loft during all four seasons, day and night, together with the cacophonous sounds of urban life.” Garrett writes.
Using a $75,000 projector, her Survival Condo has a balcony view that resembles the world she’ll eventually leave behind. It’s meant to be comforting, as long as she doesn’t remember that she’s “staring at video images of a city and neighbors long-since decimated in an apocalyptic event,” says Garrett.
All of the accommodations — from the two-level thousand-square-foot penthouse, which sells for $4.5 million, to the full-floor ($3 million) and half-floor apartments ($1.5 million) — have luxury furnishings like stone electric fireplaces and marble countertop kitchens. They also have access to a shared gym, gender-separated saunas, a library, a classroom for children, and a cinema with terraced leather recliners.
So far, 57 people have signed on to join the Survival Condo community, occupying (or reserving) twelve apartments. Their identities are strictly confidential, but Hall does claim they have at least two doctors — “precisely the kind of clients he was looking for,” writes Garrett.
It’s a stark contrast to the customer demographics at Vivos. Although xPoint promotes itself as a “luxury” bunker facility, Vicino insists that the majority of his clients are middle-class.
“It’s a myth that Vivos is only for billionaires,” he says. His other bunker complex, Vivos Indiana, another one-time Cold War-era structure — its exact location is a secret, but it’s rumored to be near Terre Haute — costs just $35,000 per adult and $25,000 per child for apocalypse security for up to a year, and all 80 slots have already sold out.
Bunker preppers don’t consider themselves fatalists; they’re realists. But they also have hope. “If you don’t believe there will be a future, there’s no reason to prep,” writes Garrett. “So prepping is a hopeful act, an act of defiance against disaster.”
Or, as Vicino explains: “No one wants to go into the bunker, they want to come out of the bunker.”
The one common denominator among all preppers is a distrust of the government. They have no faith in politicians to save them, whether it’s from a pandemic, climate change, or something else just as ominous.
“We know there’s a comet coming our way and the government is ready but they’re not going to protect us,” Vicino told Garrett. “You look at the dinosaurs, they got hit by a comet and what life survived that event? The life that went underground.”
Mark Bowman, an Indiana tradesman who was one of the first, along with Soulsby, to lease an xPoint bunker back in 2017, told Garrett he believes FEMA stands for “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful Aid.” There are no Democrats or Republicans among the xPoint Bunker owners, just a community united by the idea that when real trouble happens, the “sclerotic government infrastructure” will leave them for dead.
But their contempt for politicians doesn’t extend to their fellow citizens. In fact, Soulsby believes that a big disaster “would actually bring out the best in people,” writes Garrett, an event that “might be a way of enabling us to recover a lost social solidarity.”
This depiction goes against the usual media portrayal of preppers hiding behind steel walls while their fellow humans perish beyond their secure boundaries.
“After the reset,” says Torres, speaking of the coming apocalypse, “we won’t even need laws, just the respect we already have for each other. I can’t wait for that.”
“The way I see it,” Soulsby told the author, “being prepared puts me in a better position to help others. It’s like when you fly, and they tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first.
“If you’re dead, you’re not helping anyone.”
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