Freeze-dried meals and fuel tablets are among the items preppers have on hand for a disaster.
At his Town of Bristol home, Curt LaHaise has a T-shirt that says it all: "WTSHTF, ITEOTWAWKI."
"When I wear it sometimes, people are like, 'What the hell?"
LaHaise is a "prepper," and his shirt's cryptic message is an acronym familiar to people like him preparing for major catastrophes of any kind. It means "When The Shit Hits The Fan, It's The End Of The World As We Know It."
"You've got to have a sense of humor about this stuff," he says.
But LaHaise isn't joking when he shows me the abundant stash in his basement. A shelving unit stocked with canned food stands next to a table decked with kerosene, a solar oven, water filters, bulk vitamins, batteries and even small canisters of potassium iodine pills to counteract radioactive contamination. Stacks of cardboard boxes contain freeze-dried food and cooking staples that could last years. We count seven cases of bottled water, plus another 60 gallons he stores upstairs in five-gallon containers.
A former cop and firefighter who grew up in Southern California, LaHaise, 51, informally leads the Madison Preppers, a group launched in March 2012 on Meetup.com that now has 217 members and counting. One or two evenings a month, an average of two dozen preppers show up at Bristol's town hall north of Sun Prairie to share knowledge, trade secrets and, when the mood is right, swap doomsday scenarios. Similar groups exist in Milwaukee and the Fox Valley, though Madison's is the largest in Wisconsin.
Part self-reliance, part paranoia, the group's mantra is, naturally, being prepared. For anything.
A "disaster" could be something mundane like losing your job or a Wisconsin blizzard that knocks out the power for a few days. But LaHaise and others can quickly rattle off other game-changing cataclysms: floods, wildfires, dirty bombs, financial collapse, pandemics, climate change, peak oil. LaHaise is also ready if a solar flare or electromagnetic pulse fries the grid and renders useless all the gadgets society is so dependent on.
Prepping, LaHaise says, is like house insurance. You hope you won't need it, but it's nice to have, just in case. Is that nuts? Or just being prudent?
"I have friends who know what I do and they say, 'Oh, you're paranoid.' I say, 'No, I'm prepared. Or prepare-anoid.' If I don't need it, have I wasted money? I don't think so."
Everyone loves a good post-apocalypse story, judging by the bazillions in cash raked in each year by books and movies of that genre (The Hunger Games, The Road and World War Z, to name a few recent entrants).
The shows focus on prepping extremes. In one, a family hunts rattlesnakes and builds desert bunkers from kitty litter and beer bottles. Another family, readying for nuclear war, builds underground tunnels from 18 recycled school buses -- with enough supplies for 500 people -- and buries them under a foot and a half of concrete.
"I tell people, that's made for TV," says Kathy, a prepper from Janesville who declined to provide her last name because she didn't want to give her neighbors more reason "to think I'm crazy." "Believe me, most prepping is boring as hell."
Prepping, LaHaise notes, taps into age-old ideals like taking personal responsibility or living off the land. Guns are part of the picture, too, both for hunting and, if need be, self-defense. An NRA-certified firearms instructor, LaHaise has a stocked gun safe in his basement, and he counsels preppers that storing food and water to last a lifetime won't do much good if you can't secure them from hungry, desperate mobs.
"Firearms are just another tool, like a saw or hammer," he says.
LaHaise declines to say how many guns he owns ("I'll tell you off the record," he says with a laugh). But in the same breath, he insists he's no anti-government extremist, and he pooh-poohs preppers who feel that way. Society needs government and laws. But as Hurricane Katrina showed, citizens can't count on the government to be "superheroes" during major crises, he says.
Non-preppers are in denial, he says. "They think, 'It's not going to happen to me, it only happens to other people. If it does happen to me, I'll know what to do.' Sorry, you won't."
Each meeting in Bristol focuses on a particular topic, such as how to purify water, perform first aid or forage for edible plants. Other presentations have centered on beekeeping, canning, firearm safety or how to raise quail.
A stocky man with a trim mustache, LaHaise is the group's engine. He leads most meetings but relies on volunteers to cover topics in which he lacks expertise.
In mid-September, a gray-bearded man who lives south of Oregon delivered a PowerPoint presentation on using inexpensive air rifles to hunt squirrels, rabbits and other small game. The man -- we'll call him Gary -- asked me not to use his name, saying he didn't want non-preppers flocking to his house if, you know, TSHTF.
When it comes to air rifles, Gary is no poseur. He knows from 30 years of experience that flat-tipped pellets won't pierce a squirrel's skin, and that the rifles are quiet enough to let you hear a pellet hit its target (a kill on a rabbit recently sounded like "a rubber mallet smacking concrete.")
At a meeting in early October, Kathy, who retired in 2008 from a 26-year career as a Wisconsin state trooper, hobbled in a few minutes late to lecture nearly 30 preppers about the medicinal properties of wild herbs and plants.
Though she walks with a cane, Kathy is anything but feeble. This is a gal who makes her own tinctures from vodka and plantain weeds to clear her sinuses, who bluntly defines the term "carminative" as "it makes you fart," who swaps yarrow for tomatoes with her backyard neighbor in case she ever needs the flowering plant to staunch a bleeding wound.
Kathy's tips drew nods from the group. An example: When driving near her home, she sometimes scatters seeds of medicinal plants in roadside ditches along her "bug-out" route, an escape path mapped out for her RV if disaster strikes. Will she ever need those plants? Maybe not. But it's one more preparation.
Kathy was raised in Cottage Grove by Depression-era parents who, she says, were forerunners of hippies. They gardened, foraged, ate small game, sewed their own clothes. She likes the words "self-sufficient" and "homesteader" to describe her interest in prepping, which gained steam prior to Y2K.
Likewise, LaHaise's passion for prepping started with the grandparents who helped raise him in San Bernardino County. They represented a generation that could fix anything, that preserved food in cellars.
"I think it's going back to our roots," he says. "I don't think it's anything new."
Before moving to Wisconsin in the late 1990s, LaHaise lived through California earthquakes and once had to evacuate his home during a wildfire. He didn't have a plan back then. Now he does. Fifteen years in law enforcement also fueled his passion. During the Rodney King riots in 1992, his unit provided security for firefighters dousing blazing buildings in Los Angeles. That chaotic time shaped his worldview.
"I tell everybody, you're your own first responder. You're your own security, your own fire and EMS, your own grocery store. You gotta know all those things."
At two meetings of the Preppers this fall, the audience was mostly middle-aged or above, roughly split by gender, and all white. There were a few married couples and a couple of kids who apparently tagged along with Grandma or Grandpa. Most are from Dane County, though they come from as far as Portage or Janesville, too.
Later, I signed up for a Meetup.com account so I could scroll through online profiles of a few dozen members. I found several claiming law enforcement or military experience. Some have been prepping for years; others are new to the game. They want to be more self-sufficient and meet like-minded people.
Many don't post pictures; others display Facebook-like photos of smiling folks camping or hanging with friends. One photo of a man claiming to be from Jefferson shows him teaching what looks like a 5-year-old to fire a semiautomatic rifle, something that'd surely rile up even moderate Madisonians.
"I was in Mississippi when Katrina hit and watched as people were not prepared for the worst, and I won't let it happen to my family, friends and community," he wrote.
Another Madison female said her goal is to "minimize my dependence on modern conveniences and live a lifestyle that is environmentally and socially responsible." That'd likely strike a chord with Madison's granola crowd.
Because new members turn up at almost every meeting, LaHaise begins each gathering with a disclaimer that's also on the Meetup site: The group is "inclusive" and avoids talking about politics, religion, race or other hot-button issues.
"We're not trying to overthrow the government," he says with a laugh.
Still, the group in September took a few shots at the city of Madison, joking how residents here can smoke pot or raise chickens in their apartments but can't buy or sell a slingshot. "Overgovernance" is how LaHaise described it. For a minute or two, the atmosphere carried a tea party edge.
There's also a feeling that disaster -- of some kind -- is inevitable. Of Sept. 11, LaHaise drew nods when he said, "It's going to happen again." Dirty bombs? "We're probably going to see it" in our lifetimes. The mentality is "not if, but when," and preppers believe that non-preppers are naÃve.
But just as quickly, talk turned pragmatic. Thoughts returned to food, water, shelter, medicine. Kathy shared an "old Italian recipe" for burdock root. A woman in the audience noted that a tea of pine needles provides scurvy-preventing vitamin C.
"Some [preppers] probably wear tinfoil hats," LaHaise told me later in his basement. "But you saw the people in the group. They're just everyday people."
LaHaise runs his own security consulting business, offering training in firearms safety and self-defense, and he sells emergency preparedness products, too, a growing industry. Because his business advertises on the Meetup site, you could say local publicity for preppers -- a group that's often gun shy with the media -- could be self-serving.
But it's also clear LaHaise isn't doing this just to drum up business. Prepping "is a way of life" that requires time, money and thought, he said. It's also a passion that his wife condones, even encourages.
"I'm glad to see people doing it," he said. "I think it's important."
So, what's your plan for WTSHTF?
My family doesn't prep, and when I took an online survey to learn my "Prepper Score" at the "Doomsday Preppers" website, the results were predictably pathetic. Sure, we've got a camp stove and some fuel, but I come up empty on bottled water, ham radios, generators, guns and ammo, or old-fashioned, tradable currency like silver. The survey says we'd last one or two weeks. The best preppers could survive 18 months.
On our own, then, we might not survive. But I'd like to think that my utopian east-side neighborhood would rally together if catastrophe struck. After all, we already swap tools and watch out for each other's kids. In a pinch, wouldn't we pool resources and become one big Swiss Family Robinson?
I told LaHaise this idea. "That's good that you trust everyone," he said. However, after a pause, he added, "But can you really trust everybody?
"People that are stressed, that are starving, that are panicking, they become different people," he says. "That's a heavy thing to think about."
It is. And in case he's right and I'm wrong, I've got a plan B. My family would "bug out" to my uncle Arvid's farm in southern Minnesota. He and my aunt can their own food, know how to kill and field-dress a possum and, like Kathy, know the difference between a poultice and a liniment.
I could tell you where they live, but, you know what? I think I'll keep that off the record.
A preppers glossary
Like any subculture, preppers -- slang for prepared individuals -- love lingo, and especially acronyms with a militaristic air. Here are a few examples.
Bug-in bag: A kit of essentials designed for "hunkering down" in place.
Bug-out bag: A kit for when you need to evacuate your home, also known as the "Get Out of Dodge," or GOOD, bag.
EDC: Every Day Carry. Useful stuff to keep in your pockets, such as a pen, flashlight, knife, etc.
ELE: Extinction Level Event.
MRE: Meal, Ready to Eat. A sealed pouch of U.S. Army field rations.
Survivalist: often used interchangeably with prepper, though some feel the term belongs to more extreme groups, such as anti-government militiamen.
TEOTWAWKI: The End Of The World As We Know It, the definition of which differs for each person.
YOYO: You're On Your Own. When government and utilities cease to provide essential services like water, sanitation, electricity and phone service.
WTSHTF: When The Shit Hits The Fan.
Zombie: The unprepared masses who will look to take what you have prepared.