How to Survive the End of the World in Northeast Ohio

When The Shit Hits The Fan, We Turn To The Preppers

At the first mention of Mayan prophecies, Kevin Knight bristles quickly.

"That's just ridiculous," he says.

The 48-year-old Avon Lake married father of two might just be the kind of fellow you'd think would go for doomsday predictions.

But you'd only land on that errant assumption after discovering that Knight is a prepper – one of those folks sensationalized and caricaturized in mass media, lumped in with characters from National Geographic's hit show, Doomsday Preppers, and dubbed "survivalists" with thickly negative connotation.

That tendency to push the "nutjob" perception as far as possible concerns him. And he's not alone. The reason he and the rest of the prepper community give shows like "Doomsday" any attention at all is to run course correction on the message since those shows woefully miss the point and send viewers into the backwaters of paranoia and fear.

In reality, local preppers are working to refine life skills in the interest of pragmatism, sustainability and self-preservation – pretty simple stuff that humans have been doing since the dawn of time.

"The whole concept of self-reliance and being prepared is just natural for me," Knight says, leaning back in his chair to recount his family's approach to the matter. He described spending his childhood working up the ranks of the Boy Scouts and later serving as a scoutmaster.

The scouts' motto - Always Be Prepared - is one that stuck with Knight as a young boy. It's also the core tenet at the heart of his working strategy and that of preppers the world over.

Growing up, Knight and his family would watch hordes of unprepared families rush to stores during impromptu angry weather to buy batteries by the dozen and flashlights for the dark night ahead. Twinkie fanatics surely noticed similar frenzies when Hostess announced plans to shut down operations earlier this year.

Which is why Knight founded the Northcoast Ohio Preppers, an informal group that gathers monthly to do away with the media hype and get down to the basics. They talk about what precisely they will need when the outside world turns into a nightmare. They discuss plans to ensure the safety of loved ones. They spend time learning new skills.

They ask questions like, "What in the hell are we going to do when the SHTF and we see TEOTWAWKI?"

Translated from preppers' parlance: Shit Hits the Fan and The End of The World As We Know It.

21 people showed up to the group's first meeting in March 2012. There are now 99 members, and they come from all walks of life.

And more people are getting involved than ever before, thanks in part to national organizations like the American Preppers Network. Co-founder Tom Martin explained that this line of thinking has become more popular in all corners of the country.

"There are all kinds of people involved in the prepper movement," Martin says. "They are a cross-section of America." Moms and dads, lawyers and doctors, young and old. The only difference is they're ready for TEOTWAWKI and you're not.

Knight stresses that it's as simple as a willingness to think ahead -- three months, six months, a year or more.

Dec. 21, 2012 isn't the first date to ever earn the doomsday tag, and it won't be the last. Humans are well versed in paranoia and sensationalism, and also fully capable of screwing this nifty thing called civilization up, incubating and birthing that which we're afraid of to begin with.

When SHTF, there won't be any announcement: no predetermined date, no emergency sirens, no social media campaign. And rather than plagues or locusts or a downpour of blood, the end of the world as we know it is more realistically rooted in financial collapse, natural disasters, or acts of terrorism.

And you could learn a thing or two from the preppers about how to be ready.

* * *

There's considerable value to hunkering down and making sure you've got a plan.

When Northeast Ohio residents woke up to a ravaged lakeshore following Hurricane Sandy's arrival, the notion of legitimate precaution was thrust to the forefront of the local discussion.

Tens of thousands of households went without power for days following the Oct. 29 storm. Utility crews - both local and out-of-state - worked around the clock in communities across our region to restore power. Organizations like the Red Cross moved in and set up emergency shelters at public buildings, accommodating at least 100 residents in some cases.

It wasn't the end of the world, but the situation was far from easy-going for many area residents.

Whether it was a frantic search for candles and flashlights following the initial outages or desperate attempts to keep warm during the night, problems lurked around every corner. Senior citizens, physically handicapped residents and people living alone found themselves in particularly dire situations, highlighting the importance of community during times of duress, and how powerful cooperative efforts suddenly become when alternatives dwindle.

Knight's point becomes clearer: "It's common sense." Get your act together and think ahead. Then you, too, can relax as the storm rolls into town, knowing that you and your family and neighbors are safe.

In the run-up to Sandy's Lake Erie impact and in the weeks that followed, Knight and his fellow preppers also demonstrated the American values within the prepper lifestyle: cooperation and community. That's in marked contrast to the closed-off bunker-building and paranoia they're so often tagged with.

The group's latest project involved compiling the bare necessities -- materials that can be easily collected and stashed somewhere safe. And that's not an insular plan solely for members of the group, Knight said; he and his compatriots have an outreach plan.

"The idea is to help the community," Knight says, referring to post-Sandy volunteer efforts. The preparation bags being assembled include food, clothing and the essentials for a family of four to live off of for one week. He noted that individuals would do well to remember their own personal effects, like prescription medicine or contact lenses.

"No two people are the same," he says. "You can't create a plan for (everyone)." And the idea of personalized planning is something well worth considering, Knight said. The impact of Superstorm Sandy along Northeast Ohio provided a very real template for area residents to filter through their own preparations, responses and approaches.

* * *

Down the road in Akron, Thom Conroy has written hundreds of articles on prepping. Like others in Northeast Ohio, his approach to preparing for uncertainty is grounded in common sense and education. And the latter, at least, is relatively accessible in our neck of the woods.

"You can't throw a rock without hitting a college here," he says. Indeed, common sense - and the gray stuff between your ears - is going to prove far more helpful than a skyscraper of Spaghetti-Os tucked away in your basement, though one is more delicious than the other.

"It occurred to me that people put too much of an emphasis on what you need to buy," says Conroy. "You can't go wrong if you have a skill set and if you're based and balanced in how you view what could happen and how you'll react to it."

The American Prepper Network's resources beginners' FAQs are riddled with supply lists that include anything from 50-pound bags of grains and rice to industrial-strength tent and camping equipment.

"It's just too commercial," he says. "And there's not enough value and emphasis placed on the homesteading skills. I carry my supplies in my head."

Access to resources, again, would be the umbrella under which all other survival instincts originate. And first and foremost, that relates to the health and safety of you, your family and your community.

Cynthia Koelker is an Akron-based physician who runs With 25 years and running of family practice on her resume, she recently struck out on a path of education, offering medical lessons for times of emergency.

Knight's group teamed up with Koelker earlier this year to run through a condensed take on the doctor's suturing and casting class. Typically a three-day affair, Koelker hit the highlights with the locals and emphasized some of the finer points of minor surgical work on the run.

Her classes meet the prepper community's desire to learn how to be your own doctor when there's no other choice. Not a prepper herself, she initially pondered who would be interested in learning such skills.

Crisis response workers, local missionaries, EMTs looking to expand their tool belt -- they've all made their way to her classes, which are held sporadically in and around the area. (Look for one coming up in March.) But overwhelmingly, her students aren't specialists from any particular background.

"Most are regular people who feel like they would have the need to use these skills if, let's just say, society collapses," Koelker says. Their questions center on how to acquire and use alternatives to typical resources and tools. When a doctor is unavailable, how does one treat a broken arm? When antibiotics are out of reach, how might one fend of a marinating sickness?

Because when the need rises, the people with answers to those questions are suddenly going to turn into your best friends.

"They are generally community leaders," Koelker says. "They're looking not to help just themselves and their family, but the community as a whole."

That's about as close to a description of the archetypal prepper as one is likely to get. And even those that don't subscribe to the moniker are interested in a wide array of sustainability measures.

Also down I-77 in Richfield, Jim and Laura [they requested their last names not be used in print] oversee a world detached from modern time at Heritage Homestead Classes. They offer a range of classes on how to become more self-reliant. While they avoid the prepper terminology, they've based their lives around forming sustainable habits for day-to-day life and for emergency situations that could come up at any time.

"These are crafts and trades that are disappearing rapidly," Jim says. "It doesn't matter what the world situation is, we're working to keep these skills and crafts alive."

He notes that living skills, such as purifying water or identifying edible herbs and plants, took humans thousands of years to learn.

And now you can learn them in as little as a weekend by watching YouTube.

* * *

Though the whole notion of prepping is rooted in the unknown, certain natural disasters of recent years and the potential for financial collapse often top the list of concerns in corners of the prepping world.

A self-proclaimed history buff, Knight points to the Argentina's 1999 financial collapse as a real-world example of what many preppers fear. That crisis has essentially been ongoing, leaving many to wonder such an event would look like in the U.S. And closer to home, in fact, he mentions that the U.S.'s housing market collapse in 2008 demonstrates how real those fears may be.

"Anything that's happened in the world can happen again," Jim notes. Financial collapse is as possible - if not more so - now as it's ever been. And with more and more of the population hooked into grids of all kinds and off of the homestead, it's clear that preparing for anything is a necessary course of life.

"It's so simple to do right now. It'll be darn near impossible in a Hurricane Sandy situation," he says. "Every time you go shopping, buy a little more than you need."

When it's too late, after all, it's too late.

"The point is, if anything ever happens unexpectedly, you're ready for it," Jim says. "Just have yourself ready for living life the way you want to live it."

Several years ago, the American Trucking Association published a report titled "When Trucks Stop, America Stops." It highlighted the chain reaction that comprises the global food supply - not to mention how transportation affects the health care industry and waste removal services. It is this possible systemic breakdown that lies at the root of many preppers' plans.

Because many commercial grocery outlets and big-box stores operate via automated stocking, there's not often a massive supply of food or other items in a given store at any one time. Part of what goes into thinking like a prepper is an understanding that supply shortages are where problems start.

According to the report: "The forecast of a winter storm quickly exhausts basic commodities at grocery stores and supermarkets. It takes retailers up to three days to recover from these runs on supplies. News of a truck stoppage - whether on the local level, state or regional level, or nationwide - will spur hoarding and drastic increases in consumer purchases of essential goods. Shortages will materialize quickly and could lead to civil unrest."

Alarmist, but not off-base.

Knight paints the approach to prepping as one that deals in probability.

Imagine a standard graph in which the x-axis represents time and access to resources and the y-axis represents the odds of a particular emergency event happening.

When the odds of an event like a bio-terrorist attack are low, there's very little time and access to safe resources when it does occur. Likewise, when the odds are high, like an intense winter storm along the lakeshore, residents have more time to prepare and greater access to safety.

Build common sense and a bit of your own resourcefulness into that graph and you've got the working template of the prepper community.

* * *

The approach of returning to our roots and relearning how to work off the land informs the prepper community, running contrary to popular images.

The Boy Scouts' motto has transformed into a subculture. Knight's local meetings are one thing, but a global community has been fomenting online for years. And it's the extremes of fringe subcultures that attract glowing television ratings and hordes of social traffic online.

It's further evidence of the commodification of niche interests. G'head and download the Doomsday Prepper mobile game, sanctioned by National Geographic itself.

(In the interest of objective journalism, it's worth pointing out that the game is, in a word, tedious. Judging by the scoring system, it's also worth pointing out that this author likely wouldn't survive much of anything - from biological warfare to that weeks-old turkey sandwich I slammed at my desk this morning. ...It's been nice knowing you.)

Before all that happens, though, let's just take a step back and remind ourselves that prepping for the uncertain has little to nothing to do with constructing bunkers deep beneath the Earth's surface. Nor does it have anything to do with stocking said bunkers with at least two years' worth of Christmas Ale and ramen noodles.

"It's just common sense. And you can't buy it," Conroy says.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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