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The self-reliance movement goes mainstream

Geronimo Harrison stands in his apartment lit with candles and without power or water as the gas stove burns for heat during Superstorm Sandy in Manhattan's East Village on Nov. 1, 2012 in New York.

Survivalist used to be just another way of saying right-wing extremist who either hated the government, thought the world would end...or both.

But then Hurricane Katrina hit, the economy collapsed, and Superstorm Sandy devastated New York City and New Jersey.

“People are feeling anxiety about the economy, the threat of pandemics, you name it," says Jim Rawles who runs the website SurvivalBlog. “Preparedness has become big business.”

Sales have only continued to grow at the Ready Store, an online firm that sells emergency preparedness supplies.

The most expensive thing we sell is a year supply of food. It’s about $3,500,” says marketing director Jonathan Dick.

Dick estimates consumers spend half a billion dollars a year on things like water storage tanks, shelters, battery-powered radios and of course food rations.

And then there are all the trade shows, like the Self Reliance Expo, run by Ron Douglas, an entrepreneur in Colorado. Douglas says visitors can attend a broad array of classes.

“Soap-making, candle-making, I think we have bread-baking...full-on gardening classes. Raising rabbits,” he says.

Douglas -- who charges $10 for a two-day pass to the Expo -- says he’s seen his crowds swell from several thousand a few years ago, to more than 10,000 these days. You don’t have to tell him that this self-reliance industry is becoming more mainstream, he sees it.

“You’ll see a guy sitting three in dreadlocks and flip-flops and two seats down is a camoed-out guy, and two seats down from him is a mother with a stroller,” he says.

When it comes to marketing though, Jonathan Dick at the Ready Store says the industry still has some work to do.

“If you start shopping around, you’ll notice there is a lot of doom and gloom out there. And frankly, I think it’s a lot of people trying to get people to buy stuff by making them afraid,” he says.

Dick says in a way, loading up on solar panels, extra food and equipment isn’t much different than an insurance policy that customers -- hopefully -- won’t ever need.

But if they do...

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.
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My family does see the preps we have as an insurance policy, but one that we use all the time. We grow some of our food and can it. Then we eat what we canned. We use what we have. A solar panel can be used to reduce your power needs from the power company, and be a back up when the power is out. We are building a battery back up system like what is found on battery 1234 dot com, which we will use to run our night lights and outdoor lights when the power is still on.

This buying a years supply of food that will sit in the closet for 30 years stuff is nuts. We have a goal of a years supply, but of stuff we use all the time.

When you think about it, the baby-boomers did not grow up on farms. When you live on a farm, your family always put up can-food in the fall. You took care of yourself and helped your neighbor. You did not have to run out for basic food supplies or batteries for every little storm. During the 60s and 70s if you were lucky enough to be in the Boy Scouts you learned some of these preparedness skills. You went camping and learned how to survive without electricity just like the GIs in WWII. But this knowledge was lost or not passed on to the younger generations.

After Hurricane Andrew I realized that FEMA was wrong and you needed survival supplies to last a week instead of 3 days. After Hurricane Katrina I realized that I may need two weeks of supplies. Now I am not a doomsday prepper, but I have my emergency / evacuation kit and I can survive easily outside of my house for two weeks and much longer with some addition food re-supplying in my home (assuming that it does not wash away). It is no wonder that preparedness is becoming a big business because people did not learn what their grandparents already knew. The sad part is that you only need to start with a plastic bin and some can-food the next time it is on sale, you do not need to spend large amount of money buying products made just for emergencies.

Having the knowledge and the ability to survive in a natural disaster is a plus. Not only will you be able to save your life, but you may be able to save others with the survival skills learned. But, if your preparedness is based on the ideology that the government is going to do something to you or take something from you, then you're just prey for the company offering self preservation. Because the company will be selling you a story you want to hear and the product you need to survive...

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