Not long ago, it crossed Joe and Jennifer’s minds that maybe they had made a mistake installing a 50-foot-long fortified bunker 10 feet below their property in Northern California.
Then toilet paper flew off the shelves, and gun sales skyrocketed as the U.S. edged into panic amid the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, the pandemic ushering in massive interruptions to daily life and unprecedented uncertainty.
“Four months ago my wife and I were like: ‘Why did we do this? This is stupid,’ ” said 42-year-old Joe. (He and his wife Jennifer declined to reveal their last name, fearing it would reveal the location.) “Now we’re like ‘Holy crap, it actually has a purpose!’ ”
For nearly two weeks, the married couple and their three children, ages 4, 8 and 12, have been living in their sparingly furnished steel rectangle that all in cost $240,000 2½ years ago. At the time of purchase they feared the growing divisiveness gripping the nation after the 2016 presidential election might one day spark civil unrest.
“This is the last thing we thought we’d use it for, honestly,” said Joe of the reinforced structure built from more than 3-inch thick steel and encased in a foot of rebarred concrete. Advertised as being able to withstand a nearby nuclear blast, the bunker is also outfitted with an air-filtration unit that is supposed to be able to screen biological or chemical toxins while allowing oxygen in from the outside.
Since the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s, distressed Americans fearing nuclear war or other cataclysmic events began constructing bomb shelters in their backyards. The movement—dubbed survivalism—evolved in the following decades and as it did, those engaging in doomsday preparations were often greeted with derision.
But now, as the coronavirus upends nearly all aspects of normal life survivalists—sometimes also called “preppers”—like Joe and his wife aren’t feeling only a sense of relief, but also pride. They plan on remaining in their bunker only until the end of this month, primarily as a precaution against the virus.
“If we’re out and about and we got it, we’d end up being fine, but I don’t want to be part of the problem and be out there as a carrier and spreading it,” he said. But the couple—each able to work from home—are also concerned about what an economic fallout might look like.
“There’s literally people fighting over toilet paper,” said Joe. “What’s going to happen when people don’t have money to buy food? What do we start fighting over then?”
Larry Hall has also been living in his unit with his wife, 15-year-old son, two dogs and a cat for two weeks after decamping from his primary residence in a Denver suburb.
Unlike a single residence bunker, Survival Condo is a luxury community that stretches 174 feet below the ground. Mr. Hall, the developer, built the community inside a decommissioned Atlas F missile silo in Kansas. Having achieved notoriety after completing his 54,000-square-foot development in late 2012, Mr. Hall said some of his clients have been subjects of ridicule after admitting they owned one of the luxury end-of-days shelters. “People are really opinionated about it,” he said, remembering how some of his owners suffered both social and professional repercussions after admitting they bought into the 14-unit development.
Within the 15-story underground structure, 920-square-foot condos like Mr. Hall’s list for $1.5 million, while the larger full-floor units measuring 1,840 square feet cost $3 million. Mr. Hall said there are only five units left after recently closing on a smaller unit in four days “sight unseen.”
Survival Condo’s total capacity is listed at 75 people including staff. Each residential floor has a capacity of up to 10 tenants. Residents have access to between three- and five-year supplies of food, and the settlement includes common areas for leisure and exercise. It also boasts storage space and a general store.
But not all of Survival Condo facilities are for living and recreation. In what used to be a missile control center, Mr. Hall built a fish farm stocked with three species of tilapia and an hydroponic garden where a large variety of vegetables like spinach, carrots and lettuce grow. He believes the budding garden is also calming. “The plants have a certain effect on people,” he said.
Mr. Hall said he’s expecting about a dozen additional people to show up come April. Survival Condo hasn’t yet entered into a lockdown, where coming and going is prohibited, but it does have an undisclosed number of security personnel with firearms at their disposal to protect from unwelcome visitors. The facility has three full-time employees to help with maintenance.
Spending on doomsday shelters has been booming since the coronavirus began dominating news headlines during the past few weeks, according to bunker contractors Rising S Company and Atlas Survival Shelters. Both companies say inquiries and sales have risen. Texas-based Rising S—which built Joe’s California bunker—said the number of new contracts signed in roughly the last three weeks has more than doubled. The company also said in the past it has constructed models costing as much as $15 million and as little as $39,500.
Atlas specializes in an array of structures including what it calls a “safe cellar” that functions like an underground bunker but also features an air-filtration system. CEO Ron Hubbard said in just the past week he did the same amount of business he did in all of 2019.
Not everyone expects the coronavirus to spur growth. Veteran contractor Mike Peters of Ultimate Bunker—a Utah-based builder focused on luxury shelters—dismisses the notion, adding the pandemic has had no impact on his sales.
“It takes months and months and months of planning,” said Mr. Peters. “You don’t just jump in and spend $500,000 on the spur of the moment. You’re not going to get it in time to change anything.”
Regardless of whether sales have risen amid the current turmoil, spending on residential security rose to $22.5 billion in 2019 from $12 billion in 2011, according to Freedonia Group, a market-research firm based in Cleveland. That covers everything from routine security devices to reinforced, protective structures such as panic rooms and bunkers.
Lizanne, a 63-year-old retired investor, feels safer having spent $4.5 million in 2012 to buy 1½ floors inside Survival Condo. “The whole thing is really nice, he thought of everything, the pool, the classroom, library, theater, even a dog walk park,” she said, also preferring to keep her last name confidential. The condominium’s pet-friendly policy was a big bonus for Lizanne, who owns a 75-pound golden retriever and a toy poodle.
While Lizanne has yet to abandon her seaside home in Rhode Island for her underground retreat, she is keeping her eye on the news and has her bags packed in case she needs to make the 23-hour drive to Kansas. “If things are really bad I’d much rather be there and protected,” she said. “I don’t necessarily want to, but it’s nice to know that I can.”
Lizanne is aware taking refuge at Survival Condo wouldn’t completely protect her from contracting the coronavirus, but said tenants could isolate themselves. But ultimately for her it would come down to what feels safest. “If things get really bad I have to weigh my options and if [going] seems like the best option, then I would take my chances,” she said. Mr. Hall said there is no guarantee people would be safe from the virus. He said the development is taking measures to sanitize, especially at the entrance, and has a wipe-down station.
Having already stayed the night at her condo several times while on vacation, Lizanne also isn’t frightened by the idea of an extended lockdown underground. “I do tend to get claustrophobic,” she said. “But because of the way he set up the windows which have cameras to the outdoors, it’s like you’re looking outdoors.”
The original owner of an $18 million Las Vegas bunker measuring 15,000 square feet also employed creative means when trying to compensate for the lack of natural light. Although constructed in the late 1970s, the visionary behind the project lacked the technology of today.
“It’s basically a cavern underground where all the exterior walls are made to look like landscapes” using murals, said real-estate agent Stephan LaForge of Berkshire Hathaway. The massive bunker—situated underneath a quaint five-bedroom home within one of Las Vegas’s humbler neighborhoods—includes a lighting system meant to simulate different times of day along with fake trees, swimming pool, barbecue, and dance floor with disco ball.
But for those who want a bunker but don’t have millions of dollars to spend, a former Army base located in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota might be the answer.
California businessman Robert Vicino, founder of the settlement christened Vivos xPoint, touts the spread of 575 cement fortresses—each tucked under thick grassland—as “the world’s largest survival community.” Mr. Vicino is repurposing the large number of bunkers once used as storage for munitions and explosives during World War II.
Mr. Vicino charges $35,000 for one of the igloo-like structures which have about 2,200 square feet to play with. A showroom version on Vivos’s website shows a fully furnished unit including a kitchen, living room and bathrooms. He also said there has been an uptick in business in recent weeks and expects Vivos will need to make room for more tenants.
Extreme remoteness and the security that offers was one of the biggest selling points for 69-year-old Tom and his wife Mary, who are both nearly retired, had already been planning to move to the Vivos bunker they bought roughly three years ago. The structure itself is plenty sturdy as well, said Tom, who also asked to keep his last name confidential.
“To get in from the outside is going to require at the very least a bulldozer or lots of really high explosives,” said Tom, who wants to get to his bunker by April. “I don’t want to get stuck here in the Atlanta area with six million other people.”
A proud “prepper” for many years, Tom said while some people may have looked at him sideways in the past as he planned for worst-case scenarios like pandemic, calamitous climate change or war, now it feels like there has been a shift.
“I don’t think we’re that much different from anybody else. People used to consider preppers to be this odd, crazy bunch of people,” said Tom. “Now a lot of the people that were ambivalent about my prepping, those people are incredibly interested in what I do now.”