The new survivalists: Oregon 'preppers' stockpile guns and food in fear of calamity
by Richard Cockle, The Oregonian
Saturday September 05, 2009, 10:00 AM
Richard Cockle/The OregonianWelder and gunsmith Jim Rector, at his La Grande shop with a World War I-era shotgun, says he's prepared if Western civilization collapses, as modern survivalists fear. He has weapons and food stashed, plus a remote hideaway staked out.
Veterinarian Richard Kimball of Burns has noticed a disturbing trend among some of his friends.
A Rockaway Beach couple has stockpiled food and assembled survival backpacks for their three adult children in Portland and Eugene. "If chaos arises, they can put the backpacks on so they can get home," said Kimball, 72. "There is a pistol in each of the backpacks."
Another longtime friend, a Harney County cattle rancher, recently bought an AK-47 assault rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. "Does that tell you anything?" Kimball asked. "He's scared."
La Grande welder and gunsmith Jim Rector, meanwhile, said he has supplies and a jetboat at the ready to carry him and his wife to a secluded hideout along the Snake River.
They're all signs that the survivalist movement, slumbering since the Y2K scare and, before that, Jimmy Carter's bumpy presidency, has been shaken awake.
Government officials, academics, authors and others -- in addition to those doing the stockpiling -- say a growing number of people are independently building caches of food, weapons and precious metals such as gold.
As in earlier movements, survivalists are centered in conservative, rural areas such as eastern Oregon. Only this time, many prefer to be called "preppers" -- for preparedness -- and are driven by fears, stoked by Barack Obama's presidency, that economic catastrophe, sweeping technological failure and societal upheaval are just around the corner.
And though the movement intersects with a wave of weapon and ammunition hoarding among some who fear that Obama will clamp down on gun rights, there's little talk of forming militias as in past survivalist movements.
"People fear change; people get angry when they don't understand something," said La Grande City Councilman Steve Clements, 52, who teaches finance and information systems at Eastern Oregon University. "I think there is a lot of fear associated with having the first black president."
La Grande's Mike Sirrine, a Vietnam veteran and retired human resources manager who has added guns to his arsenal and is stockpiling beans and rice, said it's not that clear-cut.
The new survivalism, he said, reflects "an indistinct fear, not a very well-focused fear." He added, though, that in our 21st century culture, a collapse no worse than the Great Depression would trigger "rioting and people dying in the streets."
James Wesley Rawles, a survivalist author, lecturer and consultant who lives in Idaho, estimates that preppers make up 1 percent of the U.S. population -- but 5 percent in eastern and southwestern Oregon.
The former U.S. Army intelligence officer is author of "Patriots, A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse" and creator of SurvivalBlog.com, a 4-year-old site that has logged millions of hits. It's a big draw among preppers committed to surviving what Rawles, 48, calls TEOTWAWKI -- the end of the world as we know it.
"Get your beans, bullets and Band-Aids together," Rawles said in a telephone interview, repeating a slogan from his Web site and insisting that supermarkets in most cities stock only a three-day supply of food.
"There is no reserve; there is no back room in the grocery store anymore," he said. "If the 18-wheel trucks stop rolling for any reason, it all unravels."
Rick Gately, who owns La Grande Gold and Silver, said his sales have jumped 50 percent since the real estate bubble burst and Obama was elected.
"There is a hard-money mind-set," he said. "Gold and silver are real money. I'm seeing self-made millionaires, professionals in all fields, ranchers and dirt farmers and people working at the mills."
Though preppers tend to keep their activities "a secret thing," he said, they talk to the person who sells them gold and silver. Those he meets express anxiety about the potential for natural disaster, major terrorist attack or "a fall from within based on the lack of responsibility of the government."
Retired railroader Randy Lindsey, 57, of La Grande has stored 35,000 pounds of food, tons more unmilled wheat, and survival and ammunition-reloading gear. A lifelong Mormon, he's motivated in part by church leaders' call to store up to two years of food per person.
Richard Cockle/The OregonianMike Sirrine (left) and Jim Rector discuss politics, game populations and ballistics in the gun room of Rector's La Grande welding and gunsmith shop. The men count themselves among "preppers," modern survivalists setting aside stores of weapons and food in fear of societal collapse.
But he's gone a step beyond. "I've got weapons here and at a remote location," he said. "Generators, water purification -- and all the food I have is freeze-dried."
Why? A dangerous, lawless period is "inevitable," he said. "Who knows? In a few months, we could have all hell break loose because of swine flu."
Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts has also noticed elevated stockpiling in her remote county, possibly triggered by "out-of-control spending, the economy, the whole deal."
All the fuss perplexes Eastern Oregon University math professor John Knudson-Martin, who said the world is probably safer than ever. He suspects people are watching too much TV news.
"If a bomb goes off in Malaysia or halfway around the world, we hear about it, and it makes us think bombs are going off all the time," he said.
Other fears? Failure of the power grid is a common theme -- say if huge federal deficits trigger inflation and workers abandon their jobs, or if solar flares damage the grid the way they fused telegraph lines in 1859.
Others think an electromagnetic pulse -- EMP for short -- set off by a hostile nation exploding a nuclear device in space could fry computer chips -- shutting down everything from toasters and cell phones to trucks moving food, medicine and other essentials around the nation.
Gately, the metals dealer, said some of his customers "are actually making sure they have a vehicle that's not going to be impacted by an EMP."
Rural preppers also worry that economic or political instability could fuel urban riots, driving tens of thousands of city dwellers into small communities.
"What are we going to do with this mass of humanity?" asked a customer at Gately's shop, a 65-year-old La Grande retiree who didn't want his name disclosed. He began stockpiling last winter and now has enough to keep his family fed for many months, he said. He also bought four assault rifles to protect his stash from the gangs he expects to form.
Likewise, Rector has factored predatory gangs into his plans to flee to his Snake River hideout with his wife, Bettie, and their supplies.
"They are going to be dead from afar before they get to me," said Rector, 64, a longtime competitive shooter.
K.W. Royce of Wyoming, the Libertarian author of "Boston's Gun Bible" and another leading voice in the movement, has written of the potential for social upheaval and calls the veneer of civilization in America "very thin."
"Yet, it is typically the unprepared who jeer at the prepared," he said in an e-mail.
But Clements, the La Grande councilman, doesn't worry too much about social disintegration. He has faith in humanity's values, sense of responsibility and moral integrity.
It's the preppers he worries about: "I would be afraid if they were the ones who decided they were going to take control after the collapse."
-- Richard Cockle: firstname.lastname@example.org
Black Blade: Some people just don't get it. It is about having "insurance" more than anything else. We have auto insurance, home insurance, life insurance, medical insurance (for now) and preppers have "survivability insurance" with stored food, basic goods, firearms and ammo; and "portfolio insurance" with physical silver and gold. Should TSHTF then don't blame those who prepped while you are starving or are running from criminals. It's merely a living version of Aesop's fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper".