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PREPPED: Getting ready for disaster

The world has been ending for centuries now, and nobody seems to know what to do about it.

December 20, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Using the power of books, games, movies and more, creative minds have portrayed humanity’s demise in dozens of ways. Pandemic, zombies, aliens, world wars, rapture, robots, meteors, genius apes and every kind of natural disaster imaginable wipe out the human race over and over and over again.

In the very real past, the apocalypse-fearing masses created their own scares with nuclear threats, technological meltdowns and drastic climate changes. As 2012 draws to a close, attention shifts to the end of the Mayan calendar and dozens of doomsday prophecies focusing on Dec. 21.

Like doppelgangers of disasters past, men and women are once again prepping themselves for the worst. But among the far-flung prophecies and conspiratorial whispers is something more practical: prepping for a cause, safety or even spiritual peace and sometimes having fun while doing so.
Is the end drawing nigh? Maybe not. But it never hurts to be prepared.

Fiction, meet reality

By poet Robert Frost’s account, some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. But for those who had to the chance to perish thrice, it’s zombies who would suffice. At least that’s what members of Zombie Squad, a self-proclaimed “elite zombie suppression task force” ready to fight against hordes of undead, might tell you.

St. Louis chapter president Christopher Bellers doesn’t really believe a zombie apocalypse is imminent, but he’s happy to play along — as are the organization’s other members. The international group has more than 45 chapters, each with members trained for emergency preparation and real-world survival skills.

“We’re the world’s most successful bait ’n’ switch organization,” Bellers says. “No one wants to join Tornado Squad. The zombies are such an interesting hook and such an interesting metaphor. They work great as a stand-in for any sort of disaster because if the zombies come, you’re not going to go outside. You’re going to wish you had a bunch of stuff in the house. You’re going to wish you had a plan to leave the house because the zombies are overrunning it.”

The undead made their first big-screen appearance in the 1932 film White Zombie. They crawled into the hearts of cult classic lovers with George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead and most recently have become a full-blown phenomenon with AMC’s The Walking Dead and upcoming films such as World War Z and Warm Bodies. The players, scene and setup all change, but there’s one thing that never does. No one in Hollywood is ever ready for their zombie close-up.

As they watch an undead flick in a St. Louis basement, a group of friends is tired of shouting: “Why are you going down there? You’re so stupid!” at inept victims on the TV screen. The friends start to brainstorm how they’d do better — survival techniques, food storage, shelter. Slowly, the friends begin to realize that they’re thinking beyond zombies.

“People love (zombie movies). They eat it up. You can tell people to keep food on hand, to keep water on hand and have a plan. It’s not like we tell people to have a zillion guns and a bunch of ammo.” — Christopher Bellers, St. Louis Zombie Squad Chapter President

The undead is a metaphor for any natural or man-made disaster. “People love (zombie movies),” Bellers says.

“They eat it up. You can tell people to keep food on hand, to keep water on hand and have a plan. It’s not like we tell people to have a zillion guns and a bunch of ammo.”

Or in their case, no guns at all. Under the guise of zombie preparation, the group teaches disaster readiness based on location. St. Louis, for example, is more prone to floods or tornadoes, but groups in other parts of the world work on surviving other types of emergencies.

The Zombie Squad holds several mock disaster events a year at which participants suit up as either victim or rescuer. They learn how to properly treat and help survivors in an emergency. Everyone is rotated into different roles to get the full experience.

Besides disaster training, the Zombie Squad does charity work by teaming up with the Red Cross and holding several fundraisers a year. It avoids big-name and religious or political charities and support smaller organizations. On Friday, it will host a Mayan Apocalypse party to benefit Operation Homefront, a veterans’ and dependents’ charity. For once, zombies will help rather than hurt.

It’s gonna blow! Although there aren’t any volcanoes in Missouri, residents should prepare for disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes and severe storms. Photo courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

When the end cometh ...

Pastor Sam Whatley has a strong opinion on preparation, but not the anti-zombie kind. “It doesn’t matter if for me, when I’m driving, something crosses into the lane and my life is over today,” Whatley says. “We don’t know about tomorrow. But we do have today.”

As pastor of the Columbia Seventh-day Adventist Church for the past three years, Whatley doesn’t see the world ending this month. Whatever the Mayan calendar might have made us imagine — meteors, disaster and all the rest — was a little off. According to the pastor, there are more prophetic signs to be fulfilled, and more strife to come in the world, he says. The end of days in 2012? Try 2015 or 2020 perhaps, Whatley says.

“There are some signs; there’s no question,” he says. “We know there are all kinds of political strife, all kinds of religious issues around the world, wars and rumors of wars, pestilence. Christ doesn’t want us to be surprised. He wants us to know (when and what is going to happen).”

The Rev. Thomas Saucier, a pastor at St. Thomas More Newman Center, says that this doesn’t mean people should try to predict the exact time of the apocalypse. “Jesus says over and over again that no one knows the day or the hour, so why are you wasting your time trying to come up with (a date)?” he says. “If I said, ‘God has revealed to me the day you’re going to die,’ would you want to know that?”

Catholics don’t look toward the end of the world the same way as other Christian denominations. The Book of Revelation describes trumpets and the dead rising after an apocalyptic battle on Megiddo, a Hebrew city that has been abandoned for 2,500 years. At the showdown, the forces of good defeat the Antichrist. Although some sects view this as a prediction of the end, Catholics believe it already happened when Jesus died on the cross.

“It’s apocalyptic literature,” Saucier says. “No one expects Star Wars or any kind of what we call fantasy literature to happen, and yet people read (Revelation), and they expect this to be a prediction about how it’s all going to come about.”

The more people label the world’s end, the more they begin to lose faith, Whatley says. He’s already seen people question their faith and become restless in their beliefs. Instead of trying to predict the end, all a person can do is be ready.

“Whenever the world’s time does come to a close and end, those who are prepared, who know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, those are the ones that are going to be prepared and are going to make it into the Kingdom of Heaven,” Whatley says.

In the Bible, the Book of Revelation portrays scenes scarier than Night of the Living Dead and Armaggedon combined. Five centuries after Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts instilled terror in viewers, Christians participate in spiritual preparation. Photos courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The psychology of prepping

Physical prepping falls on all shades of the spectrum, from keeping an extra bottle of water handy to hoarding supplies and hunkering down in bomb shelters. If evidence is any indicator, the driving force behind extreme prepping isn’t disaster; it’s anxiety.

Allan Ensor, a psychologist at William Woods University, sees several ways to explain prepping behavior. For those who live in areas prone to ice storms or tornadoes, prepping is just common sense. “Reacting to something that has a strong possibility is good planning,” Ensor says.

But in the case of extremists, it’s a different game. “You see something that’s probably more reflective of personality issues, character issues,” Ensor says. “Some people have higher anxiety than others. One way that you can cope with anxiety is through action.”

Ensor says intense anxiety is often linked with obsession when the need to prepare becomes so important that it interferes with a person’s everyday life. Hoarding, extreme prepping and ignorance are often related, he says.

“(People who are obsessive) tend to be at times very focused on one or two sources for information and a limited contact with a diverse population and diverse thought,” Ensor says. “Everything that they read, listen to, watch tends to be closely aligned with their personal beliefs, and so they don’t get any additional outside information. Because of that, they don’t tend to be very reflective in their thinking.”

Lady in prepping

“The storms, ice storms, people have power outages for long periods of time, tornadoes — these things are starting to happen more and more than they used to." — Terri McHugh, Columbia Preppers Member

Terri McHugh, 51, is no extremist. A Hallsville resident for more than 20 years, she sees a practical side to preparing for the unknown. As natural disasters, such as the Joplin tornado and Hurricane Sandy, throw homes aside like toys, people start to take notice and start thinking smarter.

“It makes you really think about some of the things that could happen,” McHugh says. She and her husband own a small farm outside of town.

“We live in an area where the weather here is just crazy,” she says. “The storms, ice storms, people have power outages for long periods of time, tornadoes — these things are starting to happen more and more than they used to.”

With few neighbors to turn to in the case of a natural disaster, the two began to consider alternatives. McHugh was inspired to search for local groups after watching Doomsday Preppers, a National Geographic documentary series about survivalists preparing for the end. Her search ended with the Columbia Preppers.

For nearly two years, the Preppers have existed as a small community. When it was no longer headed by its original founder, other members, including McHugh, stepped up to ensure it stayed together. She says every time she checks on the group, more members have joined. Today, there are 71 people registered for updates on their site,

Members don’t meet regularly, but they do share “common sense skills that people might not know,” McHugh says. She teaches classes on food-preservation techniques, and others instruct tutorials on cooking, fishing and basic survival skills. The lessons might be simple, but they can be lifesaving during a natural disaster.

“We’re just trying to slowly become more self-sufficient,” McHugh says. “If anything happens, we’ll be able to take care of ourselves.”

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