Jason Charles knows the exact moment he will lead his wife and five kids out of their Harlem home, pile into a car, and take off for the wilderness. It will be not long after Ebola reaches the population of New York City, hospitals overflow, and looting begins—when the first riots break out on the streets of Manhattan.
“Right now it isn’t bad, but if the first case happens in New York, you start hearing about hundreds or thousands of people getting sick and it shotguns through the city, then you want to start getting your plan together to leave,” says the 37-year-old fireman and dedicated prepper. When that happens, he says, “it’s a free fall, that’s the system breaking down.”
But the moment of evacuation is delicate. Skipping work, pulling the kids out of school—all of these decisions have lasting consequences. “If you leave too early, you look like an idiot; if you leave too late, you could be dead,” Charles says.
Nationally, the number of Americans concerned that Ebola will shoot through the population is skyrocketing. According to a Wednesday poll by the Harvard School of Public Health, 52 percent of Americans surveyed said they believe the country will experience a large outbreak in the coming year, while 38 percent said they believed they or a family member would be infected. To be sure, there have been just three cases diagnosed in the U.S.
Many doomsday preppers have spent their lives stocking up for an emergency of the type this contagious hemorrhagic fever presents. Now, they’re gearing up to put their plans into action. Charles says it’s the biggest mobilization the prepper community has seen yet. “This isn’t a local hurricane or tornado or terrorist attack. This is something that has potential to spread nationwide and get ugly,” he says.
At the moment, Charles says he’s trying to keep people calm. He’s been posting Ebola briefings on NYC Preppers Network, the local branch of a national movement of survivalists that he organizes. In the past week, his group has grown in membership by more than 20 members—a notable bump for the circle of 300-some survivalists in the nation’s most densely populated metropolis. At some point, Charles says he believes there won’t be any saving the Big Apple: “The city’s going to burn if it comes down to it.”
With doubts about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s capacity to handle such an epidemic, some people are taking matters into their own hands. On Thursday, members of the House of Representatives expressed outrage over the handling of cases so far, particularly during a grilling about how two nurses were infected with Ebola and why one of them was allowed on a commercial airline. As the news cycle on Ebola begins to bear closer resemblance to the 1995 movie Outbreak, the paranoid and the prepared are following similar cues.
Last month, Charles convened a meeting for NYC members specifically to go over Ebola precautions. The most important thing, he told attendees, is to boost the immune system with essential oils and constant hand-washing and sanitation. Along with, of course, stockpiling medical supplies and food, as you would for any emergency.
And people are listening. In the past week, preppers-turned-entrepreneurs Fabian Illanes and Roman Zrazhevskiy say they have seen sales of gas masks and their harrowing-sounding NBC (Nuclear Biological Chemical) survival systems skyrocket. “Tripled is probably an understatement,” Illanes says. Their company, Ready to Go Survival, sells prepacked survival, or “bug out,” bags and kits. As fears of Ebola grow, they’ve been filling $1,000 orders of gas masks for whole families.
Illanes, who recently moved to Texas from New York, says he imagines a time when Manhattan might shut down all access into and out of the city. “If I’m in a car with my family and each of us has gloves, masks, and bodysuits, and there’s a regular family in a car next to us—who do you think the people controlling borders are going to feel more comfortable letting through?” he asks.
In response to the calls they’ve been receiving, they’re putting together a “pandemic kit” that will provide quick full-body protection and will go on sale late next week.
“It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” Zrazhevskiy asserts.
On Doom and Bloom, a prepper blog and online store, concerned citizens can purchase a $59.99 “Deluxe Ebola Pandemic Kit” that includes goggles, coveralls, masks, and biohazard bags.
The website is run by Joe Alton, a retired OB-GYN and fellow at the American College of Surgeons, and his wife, Amy, a nurse. They’re the authors of The Survival Medicine Handbook, a guide for post-apocalyptic wellness.
On Thursday morning, Joe flew from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to Texas—home to America’s three Ebola cases—to talk prepping on Glenn Beck’s television show. On his way there, he said he was more careful than usual, wiping down the plane’s seat armrests with bleach wipes for the first time ever, and scrubbing his hands with strong sanitizer half a dozen times.
There are some fanatics in what Alton calls the “preparedness community,” but when it comes to Ebola, he’s tempered, saying it’s unlikely the virus will hit communities in the U.S. much more widely.
Online, the more sensational prepper sites are publishing Ebola guide after Ebola guide. When it hits your city, be ready to lockdown your house and banish outside family members, they seem to suggest. On Organic Prepper, lockdown guidelines are so severe they include segregating family members for one-month periods before interaction. “I know this sounds harsh, but there are to be no exceptions,” it says. “If you make exceptions, you might as well go wrestle with runny-nosed strangers at the local Wal-Mart and then come home and hug your children, because it’s the same thing.”
But the benefit of a slow-moving virus like Ebola, Joe Alton says, is there will be a warning, just like a hurricane, and time to get ready. At home, the Altons have been outfitting a designated “sick room,” for the possibility of a family member coming down with something, most likely influenza, but perhaps Ebola. He chose a corner spare room with good ventilation, and put aside a spare set of sheets and silverware, just in case.
“There’s no harm for everyone in the general public to prepare for disaster,” he says. “We should plan that room out and designate which it’s going to be, but that doesn’t necessarily mean if I visited your house it would look like an intensive-care unit.”
Right now, the ratio of preppers to regular Americans is dramatic: Joe cites 3 percent as the accepted number. A few months of Ebola fear could give the community a bump. “We’re not going to see millions of people in audition calls for [National Geographic Channel show] Doomsday Preppers, but I’m hoping 3 percent one day gets to 4 percent,” he says.
“As long as we’re prepared and have plan of action, we’re going to keep it together even if everything else falls apart.”