WASHINGTON, DC — Imagine if society as you know it suddenly stopped. All of your modern conveniences would no longer be available — no food, no electricity, no potable water, no connection to the outside world.
Would you be prepared? How would you survive? Would you know how to provide for loved ones?
With economies collapsing all over the world, with storms like Sandy destroying all in its path, with tragedies like 9/11 promoting fear, some people are mobilizing for crisis.
Chris Watson, 38, a construction worker from Baltimore County, Md., has spent most of his life learning and practicing skills necessary to survive after some catastrophic event or in a prolonged degeneration of society’s structure.
Watson is known as a “prepper,” a term he finds somewhat pejorative.
“It’s always the extreme ones on the fringes who get noticed,” Watson said. “So when people actually start researching preppers, they’re going to realize preppers are their neighbors, not the kooks you see on TV.”
The word associates Watson, in many people’s minds, with the Doomsday theorists who have decided the world will end Dec. 21 in conjunction with the end of the ancient Mayan calendar, or wolf-criers like Harold Camping, who has incorrectly predicted the Rapture several times.
Watson manages the Maryland-specific online forum of the American Preppers Network, which has at least 25,000 unique visitors. What he and his peers are worried about is generally more tangible than an apocalyptic event; they fret over situations that are occurring all the time.
“What’s going to happen to our standard of living?” said Watson. “What’s going to happen economically? Is government going to be able to bounce back and respond to that? Maybe they could eventually. But how are you and your family going to survive that in the meantime?”
There are three general scenarios for which Watson is prepared: Some type of natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, some kind of attack from a foreign or domestic foe or some kind of economic collapse like Greece. In any situation, Watson feels assured that he could lead his loved ones through the chaos.
“I’ve got enough to help my family and myself and maybe even help out some people in need in my neighborhood. But the thing with me is I’ve got the skills and the knowledge — I’m not going to store water when I have the means to filter some water.”
As the prepper image emerges from its bunker into the mainstream, along with it come misconceptions of paranoid hill dwellers and conspiracy theorists, fortified by heavy arms and canned goods. But beyond the stereotypes lies a fellowship bonded by pragmatism.
“The majority of (preppers) I’ve encountered may have some pretty ‘out there’ ideas about things, but they’re not out there stockpiling ammo and MREs, hiding out in a basement or on a mountaintop or something like that,” Watson said.
“Who has the money to do all that kind of stuff and stay engaged in society? It’s mostly people like myself who are just keeping some extra stuff, maybe getting some skills. It’s actually just some people who are exercising prudence and common sense.”
Some of Watson’s ideas are to have “a small generator, have some extra bottles of water and maybe some food that you don’t need to heat. Stuff like that. That’s what preppers are, not somebody sitting on a ton of ammunition and their own arsenal.”
His prepper pedigree comes from his upbringing in North Carolina, and later Maryland, where his family canned, gardened and raised livestock to help stretch their modest blue-collar incomes. He honed these skills during his 20 years in the Air Force and National Guard.
As he became more disenchanted with the state of the nation, Watson sought like-minded people. During the search, he found the term “prepper” and stumbled onto the American Preppers Network, where users can swap information and tips.
“I had no idea there was a term out there,” said Watson. “I got interested in finding out what (a prepper) is and stumbled onto the American Preppers Network, and I started posting on some websites.”
As his reputation grew, Watson became the facilitator of the Maryland APN, which today is relatively small and inactive.
APN founder Tom Martin said users of the site are not required to provide their locations, but more than 100 have identified themselves as Marylanders.
The site averages 10,000 hits a day, but every time there is a disaster, membership and Internet traffic increase substantially. The aftermath of superstorm Sandy and the looming fiscal cliff — automatic tax increases and dramatic federal spending cuts set to go into effect in January — have been no different.
“The average prepper is not concerned with the end of the world,” said Martin, 35, from near Sandpoint, Idaho. “That gets taken out of context. The term a lot of people use is the end of the world ‘as we know it.’”
“What’s changed is modern society has gotten away from survival and preparedness and the sustainable living mind-set that we all used to have at one time. What we teach and share and learn from each other, none of it’s new. We’re just revitalizing that,” he said.