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American public prepare for an apocalypse

Takeshi Yamasaki

Nov. 20, 2017

With tensions rising between Washington and Pyongyang, people are starting to view nuclear war as a real possibility. A recent survey found that 67% of people in the US see North Korea's nuclear weapons program as a direct threat to their country. More and more citizens are thinking the unthinkable -- and preparing for the apocalypse.

Not so long ago, Roberta Griffin couldn't care less about news on North Korea. But these days, the retiree in New Mexico makes a point of checking out the latest developments in the nuclear standoff. She says she always makes sure to "Be updated, and make sure what's going on, so I can prepare myself."

Griffin recently splashed out on a nuclear bomb shelter. It's "Very heavy, very thick, blastproof," she says. Her shelter is furnished with 2 bunk beds, a sofa and a table. It also has a kitchen and a shower. "I think this will last 12 years," she says. She spent about US$110,000 on it.

Griffin believes this is the best option to protect her family in case the nightmare of a nuclear attack becomes a reality. "North Korea is fighting a war and I fear for my family and I want be able to, by some chance, something happens, we survive. It's a lot of money, but it's worth it," she says.

Griffin isn't alone in preparing for the worst. Demand for shelters is skyrocketing across the US. A California-based company, Atlas Survival Shelters, offers a range of shelters from about US$18,000. They're mainly sold to ordinary families. The company's President and CEO Ron Hubbard says sales have already soared 10 times from last year, with business picking up sharply after the Trump administration was inaugurated. "This year, we build probably about 1,000 shelters out of this factory, and then, hopefully next year we will do 2,000 or 3,000," he says.

Competition is heating up in the market. A luxurious, condo-type shelter allows you to swim or exercise, or even enjoy movies -- all underground. The former nuclear missile silo with15 basement floors was sold by the US military and refurbished for sale. Prices go as high as US$3 million. All units are sold out.

Hubbard says scary memories of the past are behind this growing trend. "This is the closest we've come to with the Cold War with Soviet Union. I think the world realizes that they wouldn't be surprised if Trump went to war with somebody over something. The time to prepare is now, not when it gets more serious."

"Duck and Cover," a film produced by the US Civil Defense Administration in 1951, urges people to train to duck and cover to protect themselves from nuclear attacks by the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the government also encouraged people to build makeshift shelters in the basements of schools and hospitals, and stockpile food, water and medicine.

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic gauge indicating how close civilization is to destroying itself with nuclear arms, climate change or other means. In January this year, the minute hand was moved from 3 to 2-and-a-half minutes before midnight -- its closest point to the final hour in 64 years. "The current political situation in the United States is of particular concern," says David Titley of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

In 1953, the clock jumped to 2 minutes before midnight after the US and Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs. For 4 decades, the Americans and the Soviets were locked in a nuclear arms race with the threat of war ever-present. The North Korean crisis has reminded Americans for the first time in many years of the existential terror inspired by nuclear warheads pointing towards US soil.

Paul Seyfried runs a shelter company in Utah. Business is booming this year -- especially since North Korea announced that its missiles can reach the continental US. But for him, the expression "booming business" has a hollow ring. He has his own shelter, for his family and friends. He's been visiting it once a week, to check his stockpiles and do maintenance. "We have air, we have water, we have food so I think we pretty much got all the basics covered," he says.

Seyfried has been prepared for nuclear catastrophe for many years. But he prays he never has to use his shelter. "In our business, we have a saying, and that is, 'You're ready or you're not,' so I want to be ready. I've been ready for a long time, but every year, we have avoided war, is a gift. So I get more ready. We're living in a dangerous world, and we have an obligation to our family and our fellow citizens to as ready as possible," he says. He says the more his office phone rings, the more uneasy he feels.