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Surviving a day of doom at a Florida prepper convention

Is ‘doomsday prepping’ going mainstream? Amid disease and shortages, preppers at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit near St. Augustine say they’re onto something.
Bobby Linn, left, demonstrates a fire starter to an unidentified browser at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022.
Bobby Linn, left, demonstrates a fire starter to an unidentified browser at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 12|Updated May 12

ELKTON, Fla. — Someday, when your commute or supermarket run gets interrupted by the collapse of society, there will be certain considerations to make.

Jeff Smith seemed to know them all. Pacing under the sweeping metal roof of an open-air rodeo pavilion on the woodsy St. John’s County fairgrounds, Smith held the gaze of his sparse morning audience with a promise — that when catastrophe struck, his tips could get them home. Some two dozen people peered down from the bleachers at the 64-year-old Navy veteran in his “Everyday Prepper” polo. They scribbled copious notes.

“Everyone prepares to hunker down at home,” Smith told them. But when there’s an event, he said, odds are you’ll be somewhere else.

“Getting Home,” as the day’s first seminar was titled, might require negotiation. “In case you wind up in a neighborhood where the armed residents have set up a barricade,” Smith said. He recommends honing such skills at yard sales.

Smith proposed stowing a folding bike in the car — “You can go three miles an hour on foot, nine or 10 on a bike” — and memorizing where local train tracks can guide you. “The bad guys won’t be watching railroad tracks,” he said. Rethink your get-home bag, he advised, and consider scrapping the weighty firestarter. “The fire’s just going to give you away.” Carrying a gun was a given. And there was one absolute:

“Take an anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen, on day one. Otherwise on day two of an event you’re going to be way too sore.”

Jeff Smith leads a seminar titled "Getting Home" at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022.
Jeff Smith leads a seminar titled "Getting Home" at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times ]

A humid breeze blew over the attendees at the second annual Florida Homesteading and Prepping Summit, mostly gray-haired men whose patriotic T-shirts clung to their bellies. Some had spouses or children with them. They raised hands to ask about radio matrices, cross-body holsters and moleskin, to protect their feet from blisters.

Were these the survivors who would someday rebuild civilization?

With classes like “How To Start An Edible Food Forest,” “Old Tools For the Future” and “Machete For Self-Defense,” the two-day convention, held 20 miles into the state’s rural interior, and a world apart from touristy St. Augustine, was geared toward the self-reliant, the prepared and the paranoid — or, depending on your perspective, the enlightened.

The gathering of less than 100 was smaller and less diverse than one might expect from recent reports about prepping going mainstream amid the pandemic and its eye-opening toilet paper shortages.

Home Depot now sells stackable 60-entree buckets of dehydrated survival food (“Just add water”). The Kardashians have posted about their favorite “bug-out bags.” Disaster preparedness has wormed its way into everyday households, fueled by concerns about climate change, wildfires, floods. Worth $75.5 billion in 2017, the industry is projected to reach $423 billion in 2025.

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The founder of the prepping site The Prepared told the NPR-distributed broadcast 1A last year that prepping is no longer limited to white, conspiracy-minded conservatives. He described prepper classes “where we’ll have a Gen Z, LGBTQ pride-shirt-wearing hippie from Portland practicing a skill next to a Fox News watcher wearing an NRA hat.”

When sessions broke for lunch, event founder April Iser served hot dogs from a snack bar window. Attendees, sprawled at nearby picnic tables, discussed a type of deadfall trap they’d seen demonstrated by a bushcrafter named Gator at another prepper event.

The vibe at the first day of Iser’s summit may not have been youth or diversity, but the 36-year-old mother of four believed the prepping community was growing. Attendance was up 20 percent from last year.

Growing up Mormon, Iser said, “We were taught to have your pantry prepared, have savings in your account and be a community so if someone is suffering, you come together.” Though no longer practicing, she saw her event as building a community of helpers.

“Most (preppers) are everyday people who’ve faced one crisis or another and just want to be more ready. They’re parents who want to make sure our kids are safe,” she said. “We don’t want to be a drain on society.” Later that day she’d be teaching “Keys, Kubotans and Self-Defense Keychains,” another way of bracing for whatever lay ahead: a hurricane, a job loss, the death of a breadwinner.

“There is a huge misconception,” she said, “that we’re all prepping for the end of the world or zombie day.”

Uttering the Z-word or inquiring about the relative accuracy of I Am Legend versus The Walking Dead was, it turns out, a faux pas. That does not mean preppers weren’t geeking out on doomsday pop culture. Everyone seemed to have read a series of prepper novels by a central Florida survivalist who writes under the pseudonym A. American (A is for Angery). Several carried paperbacks of his first book, Going Home, which starts with a power grid disaster and may be best characterized by its itemized descriptions of the contents of the main character’s backpacks.

Over and over, preppers said it doesn’t take much to get started. Buy a few extra cans of food and stash them somewhere, they said. Then do it again. Start by having enough to survive 72 hours at home. Then shoot for two weeks.

There was no talk of million-dollar bunkers. The parking lot was filled with modest sedans and older pickups.

Attendees in shoes made for comfort shuffled along a dirt path lined with nine vendor tables in the harsh afternoon sun, browsing the offerings.

Tourniquets, quick-clot combat gauze packs and chest seals — items developed for battlefield medics — crowded the tables of Jake Drumm’s booth. The bearded paramedic and proponent of “wilderness medicine” from Tennessee said the term “prepper” conjured up backyard bunkers and hoarders.

“The worst thing that ever happened to preppers was the Discovery Channel’s Doomsday Preppers,” he said. Some prefer the term “homesteader.”

Tourniquets, gauze and bandages for sale at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022.
Tourniquets, gauze and bandages for sale at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times ]

One booth over was Fortress K9 out of Plant City, where several shepherd puppies sat in crates. The owner was scheduled to give a talk titled “Why a Firearm is Not Enough — Personal Protection Dogs” the following day. On the other side, Smith, the Everyday Prepper, was selling non-power tools you may have seen rusting in your grandfather’s shed, like hand-powered drills and grinders.

A young woman who had come alone approached Smith’s booth with intense eyes.

“Do you think the attack dog is worth it, since a dog might give me away?” she asked earnestly. “It sounds like a good idea,” she went on, her hands gripping the straps of her backpack. “You know, as a woman, you worry that if something happens, the raping would start.” Smith grimaced. A Belgian Malinois is good for home security, he said, but their food could eat up space in a pack.

The next booth was selling bath bombs to raise money to fight child sex trafficking. Then there was a company that would have seemed more appropriate at a typical home show, selling a type of leaf-free gutter installation.

At the final booth along the path, Austin Avery, 20, demonstrated a device called an atlatl, a heavy stick with a peg for throwing spears. He launched one 40 yards through the air into some grass. “A guy on YouTube used one of these to take down a buffalo,” he said. He also had non-returning boomerangs, all handmade.

There was no consensus on what specific disaster most necessitated the need to take down a buffalo, but the vague future calamity was always discussed in terms of when, not if. Prepper shorthand is to refer simply to “the event,” as in, “when the event happens, you’ll be shocked how quickly Walmart closes and the fighting starts.”

Austin Avery launches a spear with an atlatl at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022.
Austin Avery launches a spear with an atlatl at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times ]

One seminar handout organized like a college syllabus listed 20 possible events, including cyber threats, infectious diseases, dam failures, civil disturbances, hot weather, cold weather, “space weather” and six varieties of military or terrorist attack.

Madison Poole, the proprietor of Bombproof Bushcraft, who was selling hatchets ($54 for a leather-wrapped “viking axe”), said she was most concerned about a global famine brought on by war in Ukraine and a historic fertilizer shortage that has farmers around the world facing lower yields.

“The media’s not talking about fertilizer,” Poole said. “They won’t tell you.”

Hatchets on display at the Bombproof Bushcraft tent at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022.
Hatchets on display at the Bombproof Bushcraft tent at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times ]

She said prepping seems odd to some, but the modern state of relying on grocery stores and drive-thrus is the true aberration. She believed the pandemic shook people’s faith in the government, and bare shelves offered a glimpse at the razor’s edge our general comfort rests upon.

“Who do you think is going to help you when there’s famine?” Poole said. “FEMA?”

The disaster spoken of most often, though, was an electro-magnetic pulse, or EMP, which could render useless every electronic device in range — cars, phones, refrigerators, North America’s entire power grid. It could happen via a nuclear weapon detonated high in the atmosphere, preppers warned, or naturally through a “coronal mass ejection,” basically a solar eruption (a real thing).

Either way, say goodbye to society as you know it, said Umatilla’s Bobby Linn, a 70-year-old former lineman who got into prepping after reading that an EMP would melt power lines. Beneath a pop-up canopy, he wore a camo hat as he led a late-afternoon class on the post-EMP world.

“If you don’t have chickens,” Linn said, “you better find chickens real quick.”

Expecting it would take 75 years to rebuild the grid, Linn had started Purefire Tactical, a business selling magnesium fire starters. His nearby booth was decorated with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.

A man raised his hand to ask Linn if he should start converting his savings into silver, assuming cash would be worthless.

“We’ll go to a barter economy very quickly, so you’d be better off with something people can use,” Linn said. “Beans are good. You can get a 25-pound sack of black eyed peas for 37 bucks.” He lamented that a 50-pound bag of pinto beans now cost more than $120.

Bobby Linn demonstrates a fire starter at his booth at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022.
Bobby Linn demonstrates a fire starter at his booth at the Homesteading and Prepping Summit at the St. John's County Fairgrounds in Elkton, Fla. on Saturday, April 24, 2022. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times ]

Like most of the day’s classes, the audience seemed as eager to share as to listen. A woman spoke up, unprompted, to say she knew of a seed that could purify water. Another woman replied that those seeds remove particulates, but not bacteria. The first woman thanked her and jotted that down.

The day was winding down, and after seven hours of doom talk — in a world where stockpiling beans isn’t strange, merely practical — a $60 firestarter was beginning to look like a good deal.

Fertilizer, it turns out, is scarce, and farmers are spooked (though the media has reported on it). In 2017, a commission of experts formed to assess the threat of EMPs advised Congress that such a weapon could effectively set technology back to the 1800s, killing 90 percent of Americans in the first year. Research shows moringa seeds do have some ability to clean water.

And maybe it couldn’t hurt to have at least one tourniquet somewhere in the house?

Browsing hatchets and skinners at the end of the day was Cathy Kiang, a 41-year-old executive.

She had driven alone from Orlando to learn where to start with sustainability, gun safety and, perhaps, raising rabbits for food. “This is really out of character for me,” she said. Asked why she was there, Kiang didn’t mention nuclear disasters or power grids.

She worked in live events and travel. Her industry was only now getting back to somewhat normal.

“It would be nice to be self-sustainable,” she said. “The last two years made me think. If I lost my job and had to survive on my own, what would I eat?”

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