SAN DIEGO — Six months ago, Jim Wiseman didn’t even have a spare nutrition bar in his kitchen cabinet.
Now, 54-year-old businessman and father of five has a backup generator, a water filter, a grain mill and a 4-foot-tall pile of emergency food tucked in his home in the expensive San Diego suburb of La Jolla.
Mr. Wiseman isn’t alone. Emergency supply retailers and military surplus stores nationwide have seen business boom in the past few months as an increasing number of Americans spooked by the economy rush to stock up on gear that was once the domain of hard-core survivalists.
These people snapping up everything from water purification tablets to thermal blankets shatter the survivalist stereotype: They are mostly urban professionals with mortgages, SUVs, solid jobs and a twinge of embarrassment about their newfound hobby.
From teachers to real estate agents, these budding emergency gurus say the dismal economy has made them prepare for financial collapse as if it were an oncoming Category 5 hurricane. They worry about rampant inflation, runs on banks, bare grocery shelves and widespread power failures that could make taps run dry.
For Mr. Wiseman, a fire protection contractor, that’s meant spending roughly $20,000 since September on survival gear - and trying to persuade others to do the same.
“The UPS guy drops things off, and he sees my 4-by-8-by-6-foot pile of food and I say ‘What are you doing to prepare, buddy?’ ” he said. “Because there won’t be a thing left on any shelf of any supermarket in the country if people’s confidence wavers.”
The surge in interest in emergency stockpiling has been a bonanza for camping supply companies and military surplus vendors, some of whom report sales spikes of up to 50 percent. These companies usually cater to people preparing for earthquakes or hurricanes, but informal customer surveys now indicate the bump is from first-time shoppers who cite financial, not natural, disaster as their primary concern, they say.
Top sellers include 55-gallon water jugs, waterproof containers, freeze-dried foods, water filters, water purification tablets, glow sticks, lamp oil, thermal blankets, dust masks, first-aid kits and inexpensive tents.
Joe Branin, owner of the online emergency supply store Living Fresh, www.livingfresh.com, said he’s seen a 700 percent increase in orders for water purification tablets in the past month and a similar increase in orders for sterile water pouches.
He is shipping meals ready to eat and food bars by the case to residences nationwide.
“You’re hearing from the people you will always hear from, who will build their own bunkers and stuff,” he said. “But then you’re hearing from people who usually wouldn’t think about this, but now it’s in their heads: ‘What if something comes to the worst?’ ”
Online interest in survivalism has increased, too. The niche Web site SurvivalBlog.com has seen its page views triple in the past 14 months to nearly 137,000 unique visitors a week. Jim Rawles, a self-described survivalist who runs the site, calls the newcomers “eleventh-hour believers.” He charges $100 an hour for phone consulting on emergency preparedness and says business also has tripled.
“There’s so many people who are concerned about the economy that there’s a huge interest in preparedness, and it pretty much crosses all lines, social, economic, political and religious,” he said. “There’s a steep learning curve going on right now.”
Art Markman, a cognitive psychologist, said he’s not surprised by the reaction - even though it may seem irrational. In an increasingly global and automated society, most people are dependent on strangers and systems they don’t understand - and the human brain isn’t programmed to work that way.
“We have no real causal understanding of the way our world works at all,” said Mr. Markman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “When times are good, you trust that things are working, but when times are bad, you realize you don’t have a clue what you would do if the supermarket didn’t have goods on the shelves and that if the banks disappear, you have no idea where your money is.”
Those preparing for the worst echo those thoughts and say learning to be self-sufficient makes them feel more in control amid mounting uncertainty - even if it seems crazy to their friends and families.