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Coronavirus made us all “preppers.” And people who’ve been doing it for years aren’t saying “we told you so.”

Fortitude Ranch, a chain of affordable prepper country clubs with two locations the Colorado mountains, sold out of space once the gravity of COVID-19 spread.

Fortitude Ranch offers members protected space in underground bunkers like this one, under construction at an undisclosed location. There are at least two "prepper" country clubs in Colorado owned by Fortitude. (Provided by Drew Miller)
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Don’t say: “We told you so.” Say: “Welcome to the community.”

That’s the advice from John Ramey to the growing membership of The Prepared, an online media company that helps introduce people to prepping. And readiness is red-hot these days. The run on guns and groceries have pushed millions to ponder preparedness for a crisis. 

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“Part of the reason why our site was founded is because the market for prepping has very much gone mainstream. People of all types are prepping and they are turned off by the old-school preppers and some of that extreme, tin-foil hat conspiracy stuff,” said the Colorado entrepreneur who two years ago launched The Prepared. “The COVID thing has poured fuel on that fire.”

Up until about a month ago, interest was “slow and steady” at Fortitude Ranch, a chain of three affordable prepper country clubs with two locations in Colorado and one in West Virginia, said the business’ founder Drew Miller, an Air Force Academy grad and retired intelligence officer. All three locations offer members luxury accommodations for timeshare-type vacations and underground bunker space in a societal collapse. 

The ranch tagline: “Prepare for the worst. Enjoy the present.”

Memberships at the Colorado ranches sold out once the gravity of COVID-19 spread, Miller said. He is now developing new locations in Nevada and Wisconsin and plans to have 12 well-fortified and defended locations across the country. 

“We have thousands of people waiting to join and we are full, 100%, at our Colorado locations,” he said, noting “only a few rooms left” in West Virginia, where crews have spent the past month expanding capacity. 

Miller’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard University was titled “Underground Nuclear Defense Shelters and Field Fortifications for NATO Troops.” “So I know something about shielding yourself from radiation and building walls to defend yourself,” he said.

Prices to join Fortitude Ranch range from $800 to $5,500 plus annual fees for individuals seeking a one-year to 50-year membership that guarantee a shared space and locker in a bunker, to $27,000 plus fees for a family of five seeking a 50-year membership with a private space and storage in a bunker. 

Miller doesn’t want to talk specific membership numbers, but his plan calls for thousands of members. They can use the network of ranches for seasonal vacations in good times, with comfortable lodges and amenities like horseback riding, shooting ranges and nearby hunting and fishing. But if things go bad — and Miller is quick to point out that COVID-19 “is not a bad pandemic” — there is a spot in a defended underground bunker stocked with food for each member and their family. 

Drew Miller wrote his PhD dissertation at Harvard on underground nuclear defense shelters. His Fortitude Ranch properties in Colorado offer members space in underground bunkers during a crisis and above-ground vacation lodges in good times. (Provided by Drew Miller)

A few months ago, his members largely came from the military, law enforcement and intelligence communities. 

“They were more aware of the risks from what we call collapse,” he said, “Now, we are seeing people from every walk of life. They are much more aware of the need for something like this.”

Miller calls membership in Fortitude Ranch an “antifragile investment.” 

“It does good when everything else is breaking,” he said, saying he is courting investors who want to fuel his expansion and has begun selling his own crypto currency tokens to future members who want priority on the list to join Fortitude as more spaces are developed.

People are recognizing a need for preparedness, said Miller, who calls COVID-19 “a wake up call” that reveals how difficult it is for modern society to contain a viral pandemic. Epidemiologists suspect the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, could have a mortality rate of less than 2%, which is much less lethal than SARS, MERS and the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu virus that kills 60% of those who are infected. 

“Imagine if someone bioengineers a virus and releases it as a weapon. It’s not going to be a 1% virus. So people are starting to think about what it might look like to survive that kind of situation, where there will be police casualties, a food supply break down, loss of electricity and a breakdown of civil society,” Miller said. “We are prepared for that collapse. We are prepared to defend ourselves.”

Miller’s pitch for members includes a list of 46 events that could trigger a societal collapse. It includes all sorts of terrorism, solar flares or cyber attacks disabling the nation’s power grid, polluted water supplies, natural and manmade pandemics, nuclear fallout, an asteroid strike and an eruption from a supervolcano like the one beneath Yellowstone National Park, which could spew devastating ash for thousands of miles. (The newest addition to the list is potential unrest after the 2020 presidential election, Miller said. It was added last year in case supporters of a candidate refuse to accept the results.)

Across the country, survival stores are reporting booming business. Same for gun stores. 

My Patriot Supply, in Idaho, advises newcomers to the survival supply company’s website that orders are delayed by at least 10 weeks. The company added two food processing machines to one of its four production facilities to meet demand that is about 25-times what it was a couple months ago. 

“We are receiving tens of thousands of calls, emails and chats,” the company’s website reads, noting that My Patriot Supply has quadrupled its customer support team to meet the 40-fold increase in calls and orders for its emergency food supply kits. (A one-year supply providing 2,000 calories a day costs $2,987.)

Pearre Cabell closed his Colorado Zombie Outpost store in Colorado Springs days before Gov. Jared Polis ordered the coronavirus-related lockdown, he said, because customers had already “wiped out all our inventory.” 

“We had a helluva run as the virus started spreading,” said Cabell, who sold out his supply of  first-aid kits and chemical, nuclear and biological gas masks, and before the next truckload arrived, all those were sold as well. 

Cabell has run the Colorado Zombie Outpost for five years. (They call it a zombie outpost, Cabell said, because “none of us really want to look at the grim side of preparing for the end of the world, so why not try and have a little fun with it?”)

Mostly he helps customers build their “bug-out” bag; a stash of essentials ready for a swift exit “when we have SHTF moments,” he said. 

“Do you need me to explain SHTF?” he asked. (It’s when excrement hits the wind maker.) 

Read more Colorado Sun stories about inspiring Coloradans.

A month ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread beyond Asia and Europe, Cabell’s business started growing. Now he’s cleaned out and all his supplies are on backorder as the country rushes for survival and prepper gear. He’s sold out of his hazmat suits — including one for an 18-month old — and sent a case of 20 body bags to a prepper community “in the mountains.” Um, where in the mountains? 

“Nope,” Cabell said. “Preppers don’t like talking about prepping. We make ourselves a target when that happens.”

Every year or so there’s a catalyst that turns more people toward preparedness, said Ramey with The Prepared. The hurricanes of 2017. The California wildfires. The COVID-19 spread has once again raised awareness that “the world is fragile and how bad the government is at handling these situations.”

With online classes detailing survival skills and a library of checklists to help beginners prepare for emergencies, The Prepared has been slowly building a network of members over the last couple years. While the typical prepper is around 65 years old, Ramey says most of his members are 25 to 35 and they defy the typical stereotype of armed, conspiracy-swapping hoarders preparing for doomsday in a remote bunker.

“People are realizing they need to be ready to help themselves. But a vast majority of people are not going to quit society and go live in a bunker,” said Ramey, who in the last month quadrupled his team of writers and instructors. “It doesn’t really take much time, money or effort to have a basic level of preparedness, which can make the difference between something like COVID-19 being incredibly disruptive or a piece of cake. Our goal is to get more people to see that light. Really, modern prepping is just responsible adulting.”

Rising Sun