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The National Geographic Channel's reality show Doomsday Preppers leans toward the sensational, focusing on people who, for instance, hoard surgical masks in preparation for a global pandemic or have mastered the art of making fertilizer out of their own fecal matter to sustain their food crops.
But the truth is that there are plenty of preppers who aren't quite so extreme, or at least don't have the time to be. Many are holding down regular full-time jobs.
David Christian, the man behind the recently founded Meetup group Loudoun County Preppers, is a good example. He works in downtown D.C. as an office support manager at a law firm. He takes the Metro to work like hundreds of thousands of other area residents. And he says prepping isn't all about the end of the world; it's just making sure your family is as safe as it can be.
"I think sometimes it's made fun of, and very much misunderstood, because those shows are trying to pick out those individuals who are on the extreme, and really magnify it," he says.
Christian is powerfully built. He played football at Fairfax County's Robinson High School back in the '80s. And he grew up hunting and fishing, and simply knowing how to fend for himself: he and his brothers were all Eagle Scouts.
But he says it was watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the news that really turned him into a prepper.
"[It was] seeing people utterly unprepared for the devastation that happened, as well as waiting on the government, be it federal, state, local, to help them, and I just kept thinking to myself, 'If you had been better prepared, you wouldn't be out there. You would be fine, you'd have your own water, food, methods to cook, communication, fuel,'" he says. "If you were prepared, you wouldn't be in the situation you're in now."
I met Christian in his office where he had recently received a shipment of prepping supplies. He flipped open a large cardboard box filled with 5-pound canisters.
"That's dry whole egg powder — you can use that for a lot of things: egg drop soup, pancakes," he explains. "You want dried goods, in Mylar, vacuum packed bags; they'll last 15 to 20 years if kept in proper condition."
No one wants to be stuck in the aftermath of a hurricane or terrorist attack without the basics necessities to live. But where FEMA recommends that Americans consider having an emergency food supply that would last two weeks, most of us only have enough to last a few days.
Everyone has varying levels of time and money to put into disaster preparation, but there's also something else going on.
Catherine Tinsley teaches at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, and has done extensive research on how people and organizations respond to disasters. She describes preppers as "amped-up uncertainty reducers."
"They're willing to pay a price to reduce that uncertainty," she says, "which is a natural human tendency."
Tinsley's research with her colleague Robin Dillon-Merrill also delves into how people respond to near-misses...she says the data help explain why diehard preppers are likely to always be outnumbered by the rest of us: when we get lucky and potential disaster passes us by, most people get even more complacent.
"So for example, we weren't hit by Super storm Sandy, right? We had all this preparation, all these worries, but it was a near miss for us because it turned and went North," Tinsley says. "Even though we know rationally, that it was a random draw from a distribution of events, and we know that it was luck, it turns out that we discount that luck."
Tinsley says that means a bunch of near misses, such as Super storm Sandy, could actually make residents less and less likely to take proper precautions to protect against future storms.
So even if you're not a prepper, Tinsley says it's good to try and fight the slide toward complacency in the face of potential disaster.
Because who knows, the next one could be the big one.
Then again, you could just hope we get lucky... one more time.
[Music: "Always" by Victor Silvester and His Orchestra from The Best and the Greatest Ballroom Dance Music]