Fallout shelters for a new generation


It’s tough to imagine the end of the world from Steve Kramer’s peaceful hilltop home in San Pedro, with its views of lush palm trees and red-tile roofs above a turquoise sea.

The 55-year-old respiratory therapist does it anyway. Terror attacks, civil unrest, dirty bombs, earthquakes, 2012 — Kramer believes he must be ready to face them all. That’s why he’s plunked down $12,500 to reserve spots for himself and his family in an underground concrete shelter near Barstow.

“I would hate to give all this up and live in a bunker,” said Kramer, glancing at sailboats out on the Pacific with his feet roosted on a glass coffee table. “I’m not trying to perpetuate doom and gloom, but you have to be prepared.”

Legions of Americans dug backyard fallout shelters to ride out atomic Armageddon during the Cold War. Now, with heightened concerns about terrorist attacks in the post- 9/11 world, a new generation is looking underground.

“In some ways, our political climate is similar,” said Jeffrey Knopf, associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “There’s a lot of free-floating anxiety out there about the dangers that terrorists will get nuclear weapons … and it multiplies.”

Cue the entrepreneurs. Come-ons for doomsday products, from survival classes to earthquake kits, abound on the Internet. Demand is fueled by natural disasters, terrorist activity and websites dedicated to exploring such topics as what will happen Dec. 21, 2012, the last day of the ancient Maya calendar and the date that, some people believe, the world will end.

Larry Hall is recruiting rich clients for what he calls an underground survival condo — in Kansas. He envisions a building that goes 15 floors beneath the ground, with units selling for $1.75 million. “After the earthquakes and volcanic explosions, they’re calling up, saying everything they said was going to start happening is happening,” said Hall, an engineer who lives in Florida. “It’s making people nervous.”

Michael Wagner is peddling a personal “survival pod” for people to take refuge from tidal waves. The Oregon man says he’s been getting a lot more nibbles since the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

And in the desert near Barstow, Robert Vicino is selling berths in the 13,000-square-foot bunker where Kramer plans to hunker down, should it come to that. Vicino’s company Vivos, based in Del Mar, charges $5,000 to reserve a space. Kids are half price. Pets are free.

“I’m careful not to promote fear,” said Vicino, who also sells more conventional real estate and stands 6 feet, 8 inches tall. “But sooner or later, I believe you’re going to need to seek shelter.”

Property records show the site is owned by TSG Investments of Portland, Ore., which bought it from AT&T. Vicino said Vivos has an arrangement with the owner to develop and sell space in the property, which was originally built as an emergency government communications center during the Cold War.

When renovations are complete, Vicino said, the bunker will house 132 people in comfort for up to a year. The plan is to sell spaces, which include a bunk in a four-person room, for $50,000. He says he’s collected deposits on half the spaces but has not raised enough to start renovating.

Experts caution that buying any kind of undeveloped real estate carries risk. If the builder goes belly-up, buyers could have trouble getting back their investment. That’s especially true for unfinished bunker space where there are few “comps” — sale prices for similar properties in the area — to help assess the value.

“I definitely tell consumers — unless it’s built, I wouldn’t be putting any money down,” said Lisa Ann Schreier, founder of Timeshare Insights, a Florida-based advocacy group. “Contracts are made to be broken, and there are so many unscrupulous people out there when it comes to taking people’s hard-earned money.”

Vicino, who used to sell fractional real estate — better known as timeshares — insists there is little risk. He says that the down payments are held in an escrow account for safekeeping until the project is finished, and that clients can take their money out at any time.

The 56-year-old salesman agreed to take a reporter to the site on the condition that the location would not be revealed; if the End Times come, he says, he doesn’t want freeloaders clamoring to gain entry.

He arranged for a meeting at a sleepy gas station off the highway, then led the way down a crumbling concrete road and through a fence to an unassuming structure framed by dry rolling hills.

Most of the facility is out of sight. Vicino clambered down two flights of reinforced concrete stairs and heaved open a 3,000-pound door — revealing a large open area with walls painted an anemic blue.

An old-fashioned pencil sharpener was still attached to the wall under fluorescent lights, near a sign reminding people that “Safety begins with me.” But there was no sign of the comfy chairs and well-appointed living areas featured in the company’s promotional material.

Vicino described how the area would eventually be divided into dozens of bedrooms, complemented by an atrium, a workout center and even a jail. He said the bunker would be equipped with air filtration systems and was already protected from electromagnetic pulses, which, he says, could destroy all electrical equipment.

Sample menus describe a typical bunker meal. One features sloppy joes, broccoli cheese soup and something called “potato pearls.”

“This will be the most comfortable nuclear-blast-proof shelter on the planet,” he said.

Vicino started his career in advertising, gaining some notoriety by mounting a giant inflatable King Kong on the Empire State Building in 1983 as a promotional stunt. The license plate on his white SUV reads “ROYLTYS,” a nod to the chunk of money he’s made on ad products and toys he has developed.

Vivos, his company, says it plans to build several bunkers around the country. A red digital clock on its website counts down the hours, minutes and seconds until Dec. 21, 2012 (only 948 days left!). It also details real and theoretical threats facing the planet, including nuclear wars, solar flares, pole shifts, global tsunamis, killer comets and super volcanoes.

In a down economy, spending money on a bunker berth may seem an extravagance. But Debby Leite of San Diego thinks it’s prudent, and she’s scraped together $7,500 for a spot in the bunker for herself and her 6-year-old daughter.

“If you look at Noah’s ark, everybody thought he was crazy, and then the floods came,” she said. “At least this way I know I’ll be taken care of.”

Of course, fallout shelters were never a bargain. The typical cost of building a backyard bunker in the early 1960s, at $2,500, was half the annual income for most families at the time, says Kenneth Rose, author of “One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture.”

Then, as now, the cost put post-apocalyptic digs out of reach for most Americans, which Rose deems a good thing.

Fallout-shelter culture “creates a society of fear, a society obsessed with its own survival,” he said. “I don’t think that’s any way to live a life.”

Indeed, many believe, to borrow from Sartre, that hell is other people — especially when you’re stuck with them underground in a concrete bunker with no escape. Some, including Steve Kramer’s father, would rather sit on their porches with a cold drink and watch the end come.

Steve Kramer has other plans. He can foresee days of anarchy and desperation, when roving bands of have-nots assault the homes of the haves. His hilltop abode, with its stately columns, might be a target.

“We’re not crazy people, but these are fearful times,” Kramer said.

He’s plotting out routes to the bunker on a topographic map, stocking up on dried food and teaching his 12-year-old son to ride a dirt bike in case they have to travel off-road to get there.

Kramer thinks others will start to feel the same way as 2012 approaches. And if he has the money to ensure that his family will be safe when something happens, Kramer said, why not use it?

“It’s a matter of priority,” he said. “My family wants to survive.”

Times researcher Scott J. Wilson contributed to this report.