Originally published on Men’s Journal
The current recession has not been kind to the construction business. The number of new homes being built has sunk to historic lows – down some 75 percent from 2006 – and in recent years unemployment among construction workers has approached 25 percent. Yet one corner of the industry has benefited from the financial tumult and the fear of social unrest that accompanies it. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the fallout shelter is back.
Texas-based Radius Engineering reports that business has doubled in each of the past five years – a 1,500 percent increase. Every year the company builds upwards of 150 shelters, and last year it posted revenue of $31 million. To accommodate the sudden demand, Radius recently expanded its production plant by 50,000 square feet.
On the whole, buyers aren’t paranoid apocalyptic theorists – adherents of the ancient Mayan calendar, for example, who believe doomsday will arrive on December 21, 2012 – but, like Whimpey, educated individuals who instead cite America’s faltering economy, Iran’s covert nuclear program, unrest in the Middle East, and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan as reasons for needing a contingency cave. “Most of our clients are attorneys, businessmen, and doctors,” says Paul Seyfried, co-owner of Utah Shelter Systems. “Throw in a few bankers, of late.” Many buyers live in major cities along the East Coast, where the terror alert is persistently high, and in Texas and California, where border-induced anxiety runs deep.
Fallout shelters first found popularity during the nuclear arms race of the 1950s and ’60s, when terms like “mutual assured destruction” ricocheted across the radio waves. In 1961, President Kennedy exhorted America to construct them – “We owe that kind of insurance to our families and to our country,” he said – and it did: By 1965, the country had fashioned some 200,000 fallout shelters. Those concrete bunkers are now largely abandoned, cobwebbed domiciles no longer stocked with canned goods. Today’s iterations embrace significant advances in security and comfort, with price tags to match.
The least-expensive model sold by Radius Engineering costs $112,000. It’s a prefabricated shelter that accommodates eight people and includes a full-scale kitchen and a shower. Walton McCarthy, the company’s president and the author of the 443-page Principles of Protection, hermetically seals his ovoid pods eight feet below the surface. Each is equipped with a 400-gallon septic tank, two generators – one diesel, another operated by hand-crank – and an internal air-filtration system that blocks radioactive gases and agents of chemical and biological warfare. A custom-dug well supplies fresh water. Together, these amenities provide residents with six months of easy subterranean living.
Even with all the recent public interest in fallout shelters, secrecy continues to pervade the industry. No one is much interested in fighting off desperate neighbors after society crumbles. “It’s all on a strict need-to-know basis,” says Camden of his building process. “Whenever possible, we engage in covert construction, clandestine contracting, and misdirection.” His company, for example, always uses out-of-town construction crews in order to limit the number of locals who know the location of any shelter.
McCarthy, who has a degree in engineering from Montana State University, argues that shelter owners don’t want a record of their purchases because federal law authorizes the government to commandeer such sanctuaries in times of national emergency. “We always come in on Friday night and install it on the weekend while the government is shut down,” says McCarthy. “On Monday morning, the neighbors can call whomever they want. At that point, it’s in the ground.” And there it will wait for the end-time to come.