The Highly Coincidental Day That Shaped, and Tarnished, Survivalism in America

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This week's cover story is about modern survivalists.

August 23, 1992, was an exceptionally shitty day in America. Hurricane Andrew was gathering strength over the Caribbean, and by nightfall, it would plow over South Florida with category-five winds, ripping whole neighborhoods to pieces, knocking out power, and claiming dozens of lives.

Three thousand miles away, at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the weather was calm, but the anger and tension were unbearable. Hundreds of federal troops at Ruby Ridge were in the fourth day of a siege on the house of conspiracy theorist Randy Weaver. They had already killed his dog, his son (shot in the back), and his wife (shot while holding their baby).

Media reports portrayed Weaver, who had moved to the woods to escape government and society, as a dangerous white supremacist. The feds wanted him on gun-trafficking charges. Down the road from his blood-soaked mountain cabin, hundreds of people gathered to protest the siege. From this, the modern American militia movement was born. 

For the following decade, until the September 11 attacks gave us a common enemy, the popular image of "survivalists" would be tied up in ideas of paranoia and unhinged militarism. The next year, a similar siege occurred at the Mount Carmel Branch Davidian ranch near Waco, Texas, where isolationist leader David Koresh and many of his followers were burned alive by fires started either by the Davidians themselves or by grenades launched by the feds, depending on whom you ask.

That inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City. Some militia members, appalled by what they saw as the federal government running amok, started to plan for a future without dependence on the government. They stockpiled food, weapons, and knowlege -- a tradition as old as human history, but newly fueled by political skepticism.

The news images of the attacks -- bloody corpses, buildings going up in flames, angry men with guns -- in turn became associated with the popular conception of "survivalists." During the Clinton years, an uneasy relationship persisted between those people, the government, and the millions of Americans sitting at home forming opinions in front of their television sets.

The stigma -- and the reality of gun-rights advocacy and distrust of the government -- still hangs around "survivalists," and it's part of the reason many of them are unfriendly toward the media. The adage for survivalism has been to stock "beans, bullets, and Band-Aids." Even for people who aren't caliber connoisseurs, it's a fact of preparing that they may someday need more firepower than their hungry neighbors.

But that other event on August 23, 1992 -- Hurricane Andrew -- did as much to shape modern survivalism, at least in South Florida. Here was the greatest disaster many younger people in the area had ever seen, leveling property, local economies, the electrical grid. Neal Wiseman, owner of Dixie Guns and Ammo and a "prepper" featured in our cover story this week, recalls volunteering in the cleanup effort and seeing power lines on the ground, dogs running wild, a scene like nothing he had known.

Joe "Dr. Bones" Alton, a prominent survival-medicine teacher, was holed up in a hospital room with many of his late-term patients, with only a pane or two of glass separating them from the winds that were blowing a concrete bus bench down the street.

Jorge Villa, who runs a business that manufactures 18-ton bunkers in Kendall, was holed up in his warehouse south of the Tamiami Airport with his pregnant wife and family, listening to the other warehouses in the area blow away. When he emerged the next morning and looked at the devastation, he embarked on a new project. He spent seven years devising the shelters he sells today, which are designed to protect against any natural disaster or human attack.

The people who prepared after that -- those who envisioned some kind of greater future disaster -- were spurred on by the recurring reality of natural disaster in South Florida. At the same time that they were reimagining what kind of disaster was possible in the wake of the cat-five devastation, they were hearing the news reports about other people who were taking the future into their own hands, other people who had glimpsed how governmental authority might fail in a time of need.

So, to simplify a lot, we proceeded until September 11. At that point, even those who sat in the air conditioning, clucking their tongues at the weirdos with guns and generators, realized that absolutely anything was possible. We took a deep breath and tuned into the news with a collective civic interest that hadn't been seen across America since the second world war.

And then we went shopping.

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