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Ready for anything Below the radar and off the grid, 'preppers' among us quietly scout out bunkers, stockpile food -- and gird for the worst

To the average passer-by, the Peter J. Crotty Casino in Cazenovia Park looks like a monument to teenage vagrancy.

Skateboarders wheel past walls of vulgar, sometimes racist graffiti. Sullen kids sneak cigarettes under the canopy on the way home from school. Pop bottles and junk-food wrappers litter the shrubbery.

But in Howard Marston's mind, it's a castle.

Marston sees beyond all the clutter. To him, the historic structure is a fortress, one he could retreat to when catastrophe strikes.

Solar flares might knock out power grids. A massive earthquake or meteor strike could cause widespread destruction. A pandemic might occur. A restricted oil supply or terrorist attack could trigger panic. A global financial collapse may cause riots on Main Street.

Marston has concerns. He's always on guard and strives to be ready for life's uncertainties. It's how he's wired.

He anticipates scenarios, foresees trouble -- perhaps coming soon, real soon.

If a cataclysmic event drives him from his West Seneca home, Marston plans to flee with his wife and 5-year-old daughter to the Crotty Casino. The sturdy brick building has a fireplace and is near a water supply. The doors are steel. Upstairs windows face every direction, helping to defend against approaching marauders. Eight concrete steps provide high ground and can stop vehicles from ramming through the entryway.

"That's almost too good to be true from a defensibility aspect," Marston said.

Many would view Marston's mindset as a form of radical paranoia, but he's not alone -- not nearly. He is what's known as a "prepper," someone who readies for the possibility of significant change, and there are millions across the country.

Preppers, also referred to as survivalists, have a dubious, often unfair reputation. They're generally labeled right-wing kooks, although they come from all walks of life. Cable television series "Doomsday Preppers" on the National Geographic Channel and "Doomsday Bunkers" on the Discovery Channel have put them in the spotlight.

Such fictional characters as Robinson Crusoe and, less classically, MacGyver romanticized survivalism. But the ideal has been stigmatized by infamous real-life survivalists like Theodore Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) and Timothy McVeigh, who were also terrorists.

Preppers frequently are ridiculed because of the oddball fringe that believes the Mayans might have been onto something with their 2012 Armageddon forecast or that a horde of zombies will overtake the planet.

But the prepper spectrum is expansive. The needle can point anywhere from incredibly practical to practically certifiable.

Some preppers merely cultivate a backyard garden to stock cellar shelves. They might be on alert for nothing more than an emergency weather situation, with a generator at the ready and enough provisions to last a week.

Others, such as members of the Mormon church, store food and supplies as faith-based policy.

There also is a group that takes the prepping lifestyle to an extreme, literal diehards who maintain underground bunkers or isolated backwoods retreats.

"Many people think the worst when they hear certain comments about survivalists," said Bill Heffron, a retired National Guard colonel from the Town of Tonawanda. Heffron spent much of his career as a commander at the Connecticut Street Armory.

"It's just comfort for some people. When you're prepared ahead of time, then that's just good planning. That's never a problem.

"But when you start getting guns out, you start to wonder."

Regardless of commitment levels or reasons for doing it, a critical component to a prepper's lifestyle is anonymity.

Preppers want to stay off the grid to avoid social persecution and for one particularly important, sensible reason. When the SHTF (an abbreviation preppers commonly use for "stuff" hitting the fan) or TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) is at hand, they don't want panicky nonpreppers trying to crowd their space or raid their reserves.

"We're not into exposing ourselves even to close friends and family," said the 31-year-old Marston, who asked that his real name not be used in this story. "People might be shocked to learn a family member is a prepper, an uncle, a cousin.

"The fear of being rejected is there. Yeah, there's a lot of crazies out here. But there are crazies into everything else. There are legitimate, upstanding people doing this. It bothers me that when you say 'I'm a prepper,' you get the eye roll."

Marston's wife does that quite a bit.

While he considers prepping a serious and vital pursuit, Jill Marston finds it amusing and borderline silly.

"Lay off the comics, people," Jill Marston said, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle. "You'll be all right. Nothing's going to happen."

The Marstons met as online pen pals when Jill (also not her actual name) was working on an English project at Hamburg High. He was living near the Alaska-Canada border. After several visits over a few years, he moved here to marry her.

Still, she didn't know he was a prepper until they began watching the TV shows together. He began to tip his hand.

"He's always been a lumberjack," Jill Marston said. "I was marrying him for who he was, but this whole prepping thing? I think he's nuts. He sees this as a strategy of survival, and I see it as a hobby. But he enjoys it."

Howard Marston doesn't come off as the least bit unreasonable. He's a burly man, soft-spoken and articulate. His salt-and-pepper hair makes him look weathered and wise when talking about constantly scouting out locales that are easy to defend.

He said he has thought this way since he was 13, when he had a vivid dream about a nuclear blast destroying the hydroelectric Bennett Dam on the Peace River in northern British Columbia. He furiously jotted ideas in his spiral notebook and mapped areas that would be safe or unsafe to travel under various emergency scenarios. He read whatever he could find about survivalist techniques.

Howard Marston never stopped pondering TEOTWAWKI circumstances. He once worked for a major big-box retailer (he didn't want to reveal the name) and figured it was a darn-near-perfect refuge.

"Those [stores] are designed so that no one can get in anywhere but usually two places, some of them only one place," he said. "There are very few windows, concrete walls, an outdoor garden center that has 30-, 40-foot chain-link fence up the side of it. Some of these places, it wouldn't take much to seal them up. Then you also have supplies."

Howard Marston would gather with his co-workers and, much like a football coach at a chalkboard, X-and-O the store map. They would discuss who would be included, where they would be stationed, what roles they would have when the SHTF.

"I wouldn't be surprised that if something were to happen now," Howard Marston said, "a lot of those guys still would go there and execute the plan."

Jill Marston insisted she wouldn't execute any disaster plan her husband devises for an impromptu stronghold, whether it's an abandoned Walmart or Cazenovia Park.

"I've already told him 'If anything ever happens, consider me dead.' I won't survive," Jill Marston said, laughing again. "It would be too much a shock to me and my system.

"To me, that's just the way it is. It's not real until it happens."

Stocking up

The setting near downtown Buffalo looks post-apocalyptic. Inside the Larkin Power House is a courtyard of rubble, an open space at the base of the towering smokestack.

Windows are busted out. Gigantic exhaust fans are exposed, along with rusted pipes and rebar fingers. Bricks have fallen from decaying walls. A pile of railroad ties sits near tracks overgrown with brush. Trees and other random vegetation pop through the rock and scrap. A hanging light fixture creaks as it sways from an overhead walkway.

Next door, at 290 Larkin St., is Uncle Sam's Army Navy Outfitters. Star-spangled bunting hangs over the entrance.

Uncle Sam's is a destination for Western New York preppers, and the building's bombed-out, "Mad Max" exterior can only get customers even more into the mood to gear up.

"People who come to this store want to feel badass," store associate Frank Moreno said. "What makes them feel badass is government-issued or licensed stuff. Nobody wants the knockoff stuff."

The enormous store is jammed with camouflage. It offers gas masks, snowshoes, lanterns, flight suits, medical scrubs, rucksacks, mess kits, reconnaissance vests, radar-deflective cargo netting, forced-entry boots, duffel bags and Department of Defense-licensed MREs (meals ready to eat).

Moreno, a 23-year-old San Diego transplant, noted Uncle Sam's clientele falls along specific lines.

There are military fashionistas, who like to accessorize for everyday casual wear. There are campers, who like authentic equipment. There are veterans, who shop for items they grew accustomed to in the service.

Then there's the indispensable customer base Moreno referred to as "The Doomsdayers."

"People take this seriously," Moreno said. "When they have predictions about the world coming to an end -- when they quote a date and say 'Get ready!' -- business jumps. We had an older lady come in recently and buy $500 in military surplus as a precaution.

"But we're like any other kind of store. When you have a hardware problem, you go to Home Depot. People come here to prepare. Zombies approaching, the end of the world, Jesus Christ's second coming? I'm here to help them solve that problem."

Moreno wouldn't consider himself a prepper. "But I get it," he added quickly.

So do a multitude of business owners and entrepreneurs.

The bunker business

Prepping has evolved into an industry with big money to be made.

Deep Earth Bunkers in Texas, Hardened Structures in Virginia, Safecastle in Minnesota and Utah Shelter Systems are just a few of the companies that will prefabricate a bunker and bury it in your backyard.

On its website, Hardened Structures offers to convert a decommissioned missile silo into living quarters and to construct "island fortresses around existing isolated sites or at locations with the most demanding topography to withstand tsunami effects." and Emergency Essentials, companies based in Utah, with its large Mormon population, sell freeze-dried and bulk foods and storage equipment for prepping purposes. was formed as a clearinghouse for agents who specialize in retreat properties.

Although not all preppers own firearms, it's typical. There has been a dramatic spike in gun sales recently.

Last month, gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co. announced it had to temporarily stop taking orders because it had been crushed with orders for more than 1 million guns already this year. The company shipped 1.1 million guns in all of 2011, according to an MSNBC report.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in March that the FBI received 16.3 million requests for background checks on potential gun buyers last year, compared with 12.7 million inquiries in 2008 and 11.4 million in 2007.

Industry experts guess the surge in gun sales is related to stockpiling in case sales become more restricted if President Obama wins a second term.

"A common concern among serious preppers is the government getting too powerful and taking away rights," Howard Marston said. "That's not something that a lot of serious preppers like to talk about, especially online. If you're serious enough to talk revolution, you're getting into dangerous ground. So it's really not discussed."

Survivalist-based books, periodicals and even video games have grown in popularity. A Sony subsidiary will release "The Last of Us," a PlayStation 3 game about people trying to survive on a planet decimated by a pandemic.

Fears -- legitimate and conjured -- motivate preppers. Observers of the lifestyle explain that interest in prepping has been cyclical over the years, taking off most recently in the late 1990s over Y2K concerns.

A series of disasters have kept people on edge. The World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 and the Japanese tsunami last year have upheld the worry. The federal government in 2003 recommended squirreling away duct tape and plastic sheets for doors and windows in case of a biological or chemical attack.

Unrest in the Middle East and stratospheric gas prices add to anxieties. As unemployment, foreclosures and banking debacles continue to trouble Americans, a devastating economic collapse is plausible.

In June 2010, a Pew Research Center/Smithsonian magazine poll showed 58 percent of Americans predicted another world war by 2050, while 53 percent expected a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons in the United States.

Also from the Pew/Smithsonian poll, 72 percent predicted a major world energy crisis, 41 percent predicted Jesus Christ will return and 31 percent predicted an asteroid will hit Earth within the next 40 years.

Author, blogger and former U.S. Army intelligence officer James Rawles is considered the conscience of survivalism. He has advocated what he calls "the American redoubt," relocating to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the eastern portions of Washington and Oregon.

Among Rawles' bullet-point recommendations to preppers at are "bring your guns," "develop a home-based business," convert "dollar-denominated wealth into practical tangibles" and "begin home-schooling your children."

That level of vigilance is what makes Heffron, the retired National Guard commander, raise an eyebrow and clear his throat.

Heffron, 70, sold his guns when he relocated from the Northtowns to South Carolina. His prepping consists of a few extra items in the pantry and some batteries.

"There are those people who like to be prepared for a natural disaster beforehand all the time," Heffron said. "That's their comfort zone. It makes them feel good in case of a blizzard or a power outage.

"But when you have a bunker in the basement and weapons and ammunition, that's when I start to say 'What's your intent? Do you have malice toward your neighbors? Do you feel threatened by your neighbors?'

"If you're tied into a network of neighbors who feel they need to be prepared to defend their goods, the question I ask is 'What's the threat to you? What will tip you to -- all of a sudden -- begin to defend yourself with live fire?' "

Canned goods, not zombies

Pelenaka Lopez cringes at the thought of the stereotypical prepper in mainstream media.

"It's sensationalism," said Lopez, who also didn't want to reveal her real name. "Somebody will post a YouTube clip about when the zombies are going to come. It sets us back.

"Everybody wants to focus on [prepping extremism]. In reality, for me, it's about surviving here and now. If you can't, then it doesn't matter if the zombies come because you haven't made it to the end of the week."

Lopez, 49, is a part-time nurse. She lives in Buffalo and considers herself an urban homesteader. She began canning as a way to save enough money so she could spend more time with her four children and less at work.

Her frugality turned into an obsession. She grows much of her own food. At her peak, when all four children lived at home, she stocked 1,000 jars. She calculated it costs her between 10 and 13 cents to fill each jar.

Then she invested in Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers as an even more intricate way to preserve food. She further saves money by finding others with whom to barter goods.

Lopez has expanded her prepper philosophies beyond the kitchen table. She doesn't collect antiques unless they're functional. Her family's hobbies must be constructive and not frivolous; her husband took up forging in the driveway. She volunteered to be the local meet-up organizer for the American Preppers Network.

"I know people are into prepping for a variety of reasons," Lopez said. "I got into prepping because I wanted to put food on the table.

"When I say survival, maybe the car is going to break down, or I'll lose my job next week. But I will have food."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches its members to "be prepared for any of the challenges that life might throw at us," said Rick Foster, area welfare director for LDS welfare services.

LDS members are encouraged to keep a reserve of drinking water and at least a three-month supply of food on hand at all times.

Foster said there's a misconception about the reasons. A Google search for "Mormons" and "preppers" returns a slew of sites that claim Mormons are ordered to stockpile materials for Armageddon.

"If you understand our true doctrine regarding the end of days, there's no point in having food storage," Foster said from his office in Salt Lake City. "If it's the end of days, then it's the end of days. You won't need food. There's a mentality that at the end of the world people will be defending their food storage with AK-47s.

"This isn't about natural disasters that have been prophesied by some church leaders. But a lot of people want to focus on that."

The LDS church operates 110 food storehouses in the United States and Canada, including one in Canandaigua. They're primarily to serve poor and needy members, but a bishop (equivalent of a parish minister) can designate donations to nonmembers.

A dry-pack facility with bulk food items -- 25 bounds of dry milk sells for $47.20, 15 pounds of apple slices for $72.55 -- and storage materials is open to nonmembers by appointment. It's a popular destination for preppers of all faiths.

"For us, it's about taking care of yourself and then reaching out and helping your neighbor," Foster said. "It's about these crazy calamities and the bumps along the road and being able to get through those."

Always vigilant

In a Tim Hortons near the South Buffalo-West Seneca border, Howard Marston never stopped surveying his surroundings. He admitted he's the kind of guy who prefers to sit with his back to the wall and face the doorway in case something erupts.

"When a lot of preppers walk into a building, they're automatically looking for the nearest exit," Howard Marston said. "When I'm driving down the road, I'm aware of where I am, where I should be, what's the best place to get out of here."

His wife, in a visit to a different Tim Hortons, sat with her back to the large front window. She shrugged -- and rolled her eyes -- when the disparity was pointed out to her.

Each is matter-of-fact when discussing how much they disagree about prepping, most notably the fact that Howard has a couple guns, and Jill detests them. She doesn't protest as long as the guns are out of sight.

But where the Marstons do agree is when predicting an eventual SHTF moment: a global financial collapse.

"The economic issue is my No. 1 man-made disaster that I'm worried about," Howard Marston said. "When you take things away that people rely on, then people will panic."

That's why Marston has guns, why he learned to make a generator out of a lawnmower engine and a car alternator, why he has a month's worth of food stored up, why he wants to start gardening and maybe keep a couple chickens.

"I hope to God I'm wrong," Marston said. "I hope it's all for naught. At the same time, it's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it."