Bomb Shelters Come Back in Vogue as a New Industry Reaps the Profits of Doom

UPDATED 06/15/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/15/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

They call themselves survivalists. They would have us believe we are on the brink of nuclear war, economic collapse, technological breakdown, Communist takeover—you name it. In a mushrooming movement that recalls the bomb shelter craze of the 1950s, these end-is-near believers, thought to number somewhere between two and five million and concentrated in the Western U.S., are busy storing food, weapons and gasoline in remote hideaways against the day of reckoning. It may seem unduly pessimistic of them—or optimistic, given their plain belief in living through the apocalypse. But whatever the merits of their reasoning, they are a peculiarly American group, styling themselves as rough-and-ready pioneers on the most discouraging frontier of all. "Most individuals in societies fearing collapse band together," observes Dr. Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology at Berkeley. "But Americans take to the hills to fend off nuclear holocaust with a shotgun and a supply of food."

And, of course, there's gold in them hills, as enterprising businessmen, real estate developers, authors and teachers of self-defense have been quick to discover. Fallout shelters are being dug by the thousands, and freeze-dried food sales (including a line of nonperishable high-protein dog food called Sir Vival) are heating up. Many of the original survivalists were Mormons, descendants of ruggedly self-sufficient pioneers whose church has historically called upon every head of a household to store enough food for his family to last a year. The recent trend, though, is closely linked to current events: the Arab oil embargo, inflation, the Iranian hostage crisis. Each has translated as an uptick in the survival business.

On these pages are three men who have been caught up in the doom boom: an author, a fallout-condo builder and a retailer of survival goods, Bill Pier—one of a growing number of capitalists who have a stake in selling the future short. "Survival is the last thing we have," says Pier. "It's always been there. And we have a tendency to rise to the occasion or we wouldn't be here, would we?"

Doug Clayton's dad sees a craven new world

Little Dougie Clayton, now nearly 2, has a very special birthright: The family's fallout shelter doubles as his romper room. Dougie's father, Bruce, like many other Californians, believes that Armageddon is right around the corner, and besides the fallout shelter, there are a year's supply of food, medical supplies in the pantry and two water beds full of pure drinking water in the bedrooms. "Survivalism is the ultimate vote of no confidence in the government," says Clayton, 31. "If disaster comes, survivalists will help themselves. They are not hostile, just contemptuous."

Clayton's contempt was informed by his studies for a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Montana. Curious about the possible effect of a nuclear attack, he came across what he considered horrifyingly simplistic and sometimes incorrect civil defense information provided by the government. After five years of research, he published Life after Doomsday: A Survivalist Guide to Nuclear War and Other Major Disasters (Paladin Enterprises, $19.95) early last year. He is currently working on a sequel, a guide to subsisting on wild edibles.

Clayton is less concerned about living through the holocaust than he is about peaceful coexistence with fellow survivors. "Some of them will have no food but thousands of dollars' worth of guns and ammunition," he says. "You ask them how they intend to get food in an emergency and they say right to your face, 'We figure we'll take yours.' " To guard against this possibility, Clayton is armed with military assault rifles and police riot guns and is ready to pack his family off to a secret retreat in the Sierra foothills. "I was never very sure that I could actually shoot people just to save myself," he says, "but after Dougie was born, I discovered there was no question in my mind I would shoot to protect him."

Ron Boutwell offers 2 Rms, No Vu for $39,000

It is a sci-fi notion come true. In the tiny (pop. 1,200) town of La Verkin, Utah, a $10 million apartment building is going up—or, more precisely, going down. It's the brainchild of Ron Bout-well, president of Survive Tomorrow Inc. and developer of what he describes as the country's first underground condominium. Dubbed Terrene Ark 1, Boutwell's project is a 240-unit complex that will be covered with three feet of earth and eight inches of reinforced concrete. A small (12' x 30') one-bedroom apartment comes furnished, and the $39,000 asking price includes a year's supply of food for four. The sales brochure ("What would you do in the event of nuclear war?") speaks glowingly of the condo's decontamination chambers, medical facilities, 200,000-gallon water tank and animal shelter. Between now and doomsday, the condos are meant to be enjoyed as rather dark second homes. With construction on the first 60 units slated to be completed by December, Boutwell's accountant says 30 to 40 have already been sold.

A 47-year-old lawyer, Boutwell worked as an aerospace engineer in California until he returned to his native Utah eight years ago. He established Survive Tomorrow Inc. earlier this spring. Like Bruce Clayton, his involvement with survivalism is rooted in his discontent with America's poor civil defense posture. The Soviet Union spends $10 per capita on civil defense each year, he says, while the U.S. allots a measly 520. "Since our government isn't doing enough," he reasons, "private industry should step in and do the job."

Boutwell believes in group survival. "Our philosophy is to preserve society and its laws," he says. But a 24-hour security force will be on hand to protect against those who don't share this philosophy. "This will be a safe retreat," vows Boutwell (above, with blueprints, backdropped by his condo-in-progress). "Of course, we would hope that everybody would know how to use a gun to defend what he has."

Bill Pier roots for catastrophe

"Do I believe in doom?" says Bill Pier. "Absolutely." As owner of Survival Inc., a thriving mail-order business and store in Carson, Calif., Pier has not hesitated to cash in on dark prophecy. Yet there are limits to his vision of apocalypse. "I can picture the destruction of the human race," he candidly admits, "but I don't believe it will happen. I'm not worried about the Bomb."

The parlous state of international affairs plus a glut of media attention have helped Survival Inc.'s business to quadruple since 1978. Pier (below, in his supply room) sells everything from crossbows to emergency childbirth kits to radiation survey meters. His products don't come cheap—a freeze-dried food package of 2,400 calories a day for one person for one year costs $1,650. "You don't have to be wealthy to survive," he says, "but it helps."

Pier, 43, got started in the survival business in 1968. He had sold his furniture business and, as a Mormon, was interested in storable foods. He worked briefly as a distributor for a survival food company and then opened his own survival goods shop in his Inglewood, Calif. garage. Since then Pier has parlayed his initial $2,000-a-month venture into a $1 million business.

Pier takes exception to the view of survivalists as hoarders. "The majority of people who store food and supplies are commonsense, everyday people who want to be prepared for short-term emergencies," he says. "And in California, considering the constant concern about earthquakes, floods and mudslides, it only makes sense to be prepared."

A medium-to-hard-core survivalist himself, Pier is less concerned about nuclear destruction than he is about the economy, whose inevitable breakdown, he figures, "will lead to civil disorders." Pier is ready for that day. He has 60 acres of land in Oregon, complete with a three-year supply of food and equipment, some 5,000 gallons of gasoline and "adequate" weapons to defend himself and his family of six. "It's like buying insurance," he says. "Does that make me paranoid or intelligent? If the calamity doesn't happen, maybe I appear paranoid. But if it does..."

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