Doomsday Shelters

Selling fear:

The Vivos network, which offers partial ownerships similar to a timeshare in underground shelter communities, is one of several ventures touting escape from a surface-level calamity.

Radius Engineering in Terrell, Texas, has built underground shelters for more than three decades, and business has never been better, says Walton McCarthy, company president.

The company sells fiberglass shelters that can accommodate 10 to 2,000 adults to live underground for one to five years with power, food, water and filtered air, McCarthy says.

The shelters range from $400,000 to a $41 million facility Radius built and installed underground that is suitable for 750 people, McCarthy says. He declined to disclose the client or location of the shelter.

“We’ve doubled sales every year for five years,” he says.Other shelter manufacturers include Hardened Structures of Colorado and Utah Shelter Systems, which also report increased sales.


The Vivos website features a clock counting down to Dec. 21, 2012, the date when the ancient Mayan “Long Count” calendar marks the end of a 5,126-year era, at which time some people expect an unknown apocalypse.

Vicino, whose website lists 11 global catastrophes ranging from nuclear war to solar flares to comets, bristles at the notion he’s profiting from people’s fears.

“You don’t think of the person who sells you a fire extinguisher as taking advantage of your fear,” he says. “The fact that you may never use that fire extinguisher doesn’t make it a waste or bad.

“We’re not creating the fear; the fear is already out there. We’re creating a solution.

Yip Harburg commented on the subject about half a century ago, and the Chad Mitchell Trio recited it. It’s at about 0:40 on the recording, though the rest is worth listening to as well.

    Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter,
          worthy of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu dome;
    Plushy and swanky, with posh hanky panky
          that affluent Yankees can really call home.

    Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter,
          a push-button palace, fluorescent repose;
    Electric devices for facing a crisis
          with frozen fruit ices and cinema shows.

    Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter
          all chromium kitchens and rubber-tiled dorms;
    With waterproof portals to echo the chortles
          of weatherproof mortals in hydrogen storms.

    What a great come-to-glory emporium!
    To enjoy a deluxe moratorium,
    Where nuclear heat can beguile the elite
          in a creme-de-la-creme crematorium.

EDITED TO ADD (8/9: Slate on this as a bogus trend.

Posted on July 30, 2010 at 12:47 PM55 Comments


CU July 30, 2010 1:10 PM

Fear has been a “best-seller” since man owned anything.
The news people have made a living on it as have SO Many politicians.
It’s a cheap and easy sell to ignorant/lazy people.

Brandioch Conner July 30, 2010 1:13 PM

“You don’t think of the person who sells you a fire extinguisher as taking advantage of your fear,” he says. “The fact that you may never use that fire extinguisher doesn’t make it a waste or bad.”

Yet the local fire department (and insurance companies) can tell you almost exactly (less than 1% margin of error) how many houses in your neighborhood will have a fire in the next year.

That is the difference between irrational fear and intelligent preparation.

kingsnake July 30, 2010 1:16 PM

Better to have it, and not need it, than to need it, and not have it.

Pretty much applies to everything.

As long as you have the cash, it does no harm to buy something like that. (Making the very large assumption that the shelter sales guys are not blowing a load of smoke like every other sales guy on the planet.)

Bruce Schneier July 30, 2010 1:26 PM

“Better to have it, and not need it, than to need it, and not have it. Pretty much applies to everything.”

And that’s precisely the problem with that rule: it applies to everything, so it doesn’t help you determine how to spend your finite resources.

Muffin July 30, 2010 1:42 PM

Even if it were necessary to retreat to a shelter like this some time, who’d want to spend one to five years with ten to two thousand random people? I can guarantee that in the larger shelters at least, you’d have outbreaks of cabin fever-induced violence in no more than a week. And the naive solution of having some employees of the company guard the whole thing would just lead to a Stanford PrisonExp situation where the guards, rather than solving the problem, would become the problem.

Given that, who’d even want to live in such a shelter?

(Also: one to five years. What happens after that?)

HJohn July 30, 2010 2:02 PM

@kingsnake: “As long as you have the cash, it does no harm to buy something like that.”

That depends on what the opportunity cost is. In this case, I think the money is best spent elsewhere.

Bryan Feir July 30, 2010 2:08 PM

Really, the fact that they sell shelters like this doesn’t bother me at all. They can run what business they like, though presumably business took a nosedive when the Cold War petered out.

The fact that they’re explicitly using the current 2012 idiocy and other fearmongering as a sales pitch is what bothers me.

Clive Robinson July 30, 2010 2:25 PM


“The company sells fiberglas shelters… …to live underground”

“… nuclear war to solar flares to comets… ”

I think that’s a recipe for instant cave in (go check the overpreasure of a 1MT nuke air burst at 2Km up at 10Km out from ground zero)

“[Vicino] bristles at the notion he’s profiting from people’s fears.”

I think we have a strong wiff of snake oil here.

Sebastian July 30, 2010 2:41 PM

Reminds me of the fictional company “Vault-Tec” in Bethsoft’s Fallout game and its Vaults…

mcb July 30, 2010 3:15 PM

If our world comes to a cataclysmic end I hope to have the courage to be outdoors watching it happen in the fashion of Greg Bear’s protagonists in The Forge of God.

Nacho July 30, 2010 3:30 PM

The best part is they don’t even need to actually build the shelters. If the world does come to an end, what are you gonna do, sue them?

David Thornley July 30, 2010 3:37 PM

Okay, what is supposed to happen in December 2012 (answer: nobody knows), and what’s the chance that an underground shelter will be useful against it? If we’re talking about massive worldwide seismic activity as part of it, being out in the open might be the safest course of action. If it’s giant man-eating ferrets, being in a place with only one exit might be a Bad Idea. If it’s mole-men from the Earth’s core, underground shelters are going to be the front lines. I’m not buying an underground shelter without knowing that it won’t make things worse.

peri July 30, 2010 3:37 PM

I have to admit that these shelters sure are much better looking than any shelters I have seen before. I’ll have to look into the “just like new” second hand market in Jan 1, 2013…

pfogg July 30, 2010 4:27 PM

My question is: what will these shelters eventually be used for? They don’t sound like they’ll wear out quickly….

vader July 30, 2010 4:34 PM

“An artist rendering from Vivos shows the public lounge area in one of the company’s proposed underground shelters.”

From the linked article:
“An artist rendering from Vivos shows the public lounge area in one of the company’s proposed underground shelters.”

We will see, how nice they’ll really come out :-).

peri July 30, 2010 5:02 PM

@vader: “An artist rendering…”

Good point! At the very least I will look forward to the “just like new” second hand market for artist renderings of the place.

James July 30, 2010 5:10 PM

What’s laughable is how are they going to enforce the timeshare agreement at a time when everyone is trying to get to safety?
“Excuse me officer, this person is taking my place at the shelter”

“You have a shelter? Where? Boom…”

Christian July 30, 2010 5:13 PM

I think they stole the idea for timeshare shelters from Kim Possible’s arch foes and their timeshare lairs. Disney should sue them! 😉

lmckeon July 30, 2010 5:58 PM

Australian Sixty Minutes program had a piece on these kind of shelters back around the millennium bug panic time, and they were HUGE. I envisaged the cramped 1950s-style shelter as shown in the B&W photo in the link, but the reality was more like a Bond villain’s lair.

Entry to the complex was a drive-in adit. The individual units were the floor area of a large house with full height ceilings and an attached storeroom/warehouse with ranks of floor to ceiling shelving full of supplies.

At the deepest level the shelter was 100 feet (27 meters) underground.

Warlord July 30, 2010 8:10 PM

My father toured Hiroshima in 1945 as part of US Army of occupation in Japan. At one point in the A-bomb fearing 60’s I came home from school all excited after watching a film I was building a “shelter.” Father carefully sat me down on the couch and explained that in event of Russia sending over the nukes he’d be sitting on our front steps with a beer and I was welcome to join him

Rohit July 30, 2010 8:59 PM

Slate has an article on this under the bogus trend report heading (i.e. other than the guy who’s getting free advertising by talking to them there’s not a lot of fact):

“Hey, USA Today, get back to me after the guy builds and sells his 20 shelters and then we can talk honestly about the shelter comeback.”

Trevor Stone July 31, 2010 1:11 AM

I wonder if these are suitable for year-round living. $400K for a 10-person house is a pretty good deal. And you’d save lots on heating and cooling bills. You can grow your own food above the dwelling to extend the off-the-grid cred.

As peri notes, there might be a good second-hand market in the near future.

Morten July 31, 2010 6:11 AM

@raorn: +1 for the game reference.

Was it water chips in Fallout 3 too? I may have to play it again after reading this article…

Bob July 31, 2010 11:55 AM

@raorn, morten: Yeah, my first thought was also that somebody had been playing a bit too much Fallout. I might be tempted by one of those shelters if it came with a PipBoy 3000 and a philosophically inclined super-mutant sidekick like Fawkes.

The Canadian government built a huge nuclear shelter for the PM and various top officials near Ottawa in the early 60s. It’s now a museum and you can tour it. It’s really pretty cool – giant steel vault doors, weird ways to get to the surface after the radiation cools down, bizarre anti-Communist propaganda posters in the mens’ rooms, scads of early-60s telecoms gear for running what remained of the country from deep under the earth.

Nick P July 31, 2010 12:20 PM

@ Bruce on specific threat

I wonder if these shelters can withstand tornadoes and minor flooding while maintaining air quality. If so, I’d actually be interested in a small one. Terrifying to hear that there are six tornadoes spotted, a store roof thrown down on its 10+ occupants, houses demolished, and you’re just kind of in the center of the action…. waiting to see who dies next.

I would rather sleep in my shelter and look at the damage report in the morning. 🙂

Jarda July 31, 2010 12:32 PM

Everybody knows that fiberglass is the best protection against radioactive radiation. BTW, should there be a nuclear war, I hope that they annouce it somehow in advance, so I have time to get on the roof to have a look. It would certainly be the last ocassion to see such a think in my life. Besides, the idea of eating conserves in a stinky undeground hole for several years, just to resurface on the Earth to find it destroyed and largely uninhabitable and still radioactive, doesn’t really appeal to me.

BF Skinner July 31, 2010 12:40 PM

Fiberglass? So no good structural support for ground quakes and no gamma ray protection?

@Nick P ” maintaining air quality”
Something I’ve always thought about since the semi-trailer scene at the end of Panic in the Year Zero.

@CU ” cheap and easy sell to ignorant/lazy people”
Not entirely fair to ignorant/lazy.

We are hardwired to a degree with a variety of preprogramed rules and shortcuts and it takes effort and MATH to change the software.

This makes it easier for those who would hook into survival routines to exploit them/us. Xenophobia works the same way.

That’s why “If you meet a demagogue on the road, kill him/her/it!”

BF Skinner July 31, 2010 12:41 PM

How would you perform acceptance testing on these things anyway? Light a backpack nuke down the driveway?

A Nonny Bunny August 1, 2010 10:50 AM

“Besides, the idea of eating conserves in a stinky undeground hole for several years, just to resurface on the Earth to find it destroyed and largely uninhabitable and still radioactive, doesn’t really appeal to me.”

Considering people started living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki again pretty soon after those cities were nuked; and that Chernobyl was quickly overrun with wild life when everyone abandoned it, I don’t think you’d really have to worry that the surface world becomes uninhabitable from a nuclear explosions and fallout.

@BF Skinner
“Fiberglass? So no good structural support for ground quakes and no gamma ray protection?”

These are underground shelter; the ground above should provide a good deal of gamma ray protection.
And the flexibility of fiberglass probably makes it well suited to withstand the forces of an earthquake.

nonnymus August 1, 2010 2:57 PM

Selling fear? Not so. Unlike TSA and many LEO groups, this company sells a product –a shelter. There may well be some ‘fear’ in their purchasers, but this company is not “selling fear.”

It’s a very unfair statement, especially from Bruce, someone who is selling products designed to withstand prolonged scrutiny/pressure from the full resources of the government! LOL. According to a logical measure, Schneier would have very few customers . . . except for fear.

Last I heard (after Katrina) FEMA recommendation are for east-coast citizens within 50 miles of open water to have a designated evacuation shelter. Usually a friend or relative’s home. That means 90% of the population. Guess how many actually have an agreed-on pre-plan? Guess how many have an alternative (secondary) pre-plan?

Last I heard (since 1935 to now) FEMA recommends underground shelter for people in all mid-west states, including AK, OK and TX. Recent discussion looks at expanding this recommendation eastward into other tornado-prone areas. Guess how many actually have this shelter?

Last I heard (and it’s open source) most jurisdictions have containment plans for urban refugees of terrorism. Flee bio/nucl/chem/disease disaster and get warehoused in a school or stadium . . . unless you are a resident. Shelter ownership qualifies for free passage, and the shelters are located to minimize evacuation orders from shelter jurisdictions.

I’ll not be a Vivos customer, but they aren’t selling any more fear than cryptography companies, and the comment criticisms are a virtual parade of profound ignorance.

Nick P August 1, 2010 3:55 PM

“It’s a very unfair statement, especially from Bruce, someone who is selling products designed to withstand prolonged scrutiny/pressure from the full resources of the government! LOL. According to a logical measure, Schneier would have very few customers . . . except for fear.”

Bruce just got owned! I think I’ve said it before that Bruce comes off as a bit hypocritical when he accuses others of selling fear, but it’s the principle behind much blog content. The encryption would be exempt from this as it’s very useful for risk mitigation, but if anyone said it would be government’s resources then they would just be lying and playing on fear.

Bruce doesn’t do that, though. He usually makes the opposite claim: if someone wants your data bad enough, all the encryption and security in the world might not save you. It’s just certain blog posts and essays that deserve nonnymus’s criticism, not the crypto stuff. Had to put that little disclaimer in there… 😉

nobodySpecial August 1, 2010 9:57 PM

@bob Now there’s an optimal solution:
Tell the current government an attack is imminent.
Wait for them to move into their shelter.
Lock door.
Throw away key.

..repeat ….

Craig Beere August 1, 2010 11:14 PM

“One to five years”?
My understanding of these catastrophes is that if something bad enough to require an underground shelter to survive then it is going to require decades to centuries before the planet recovers enough to support life.

nonnymus August 2, 2010 12:12 AM

Nick P says: “Bruce just got owned! ”
That certainly was not my intention, I meant only to chastise. What is true is the comments are shoddy; few writers understand physical security. Worse, several make wild and unwarranted assumptions about (what they term) ‘reality’.

Despite 600 millions years of evidence otherwise, many scientists believe that carbon from combustion will cause drastic climate change. A tipping point. Yet the same set of folks (here) will readily accept that government stability is a given, contrary to historical fact that governments do not –not ever– remain stable.

Facts show there are tipping points to cultures and political stability. There are currently eminent and reasonable analyses (Angelo Codevilla, Niall Ferguson) saying a tipping point has been reached for the western world.

The US power grid is running with almost no margin. Current data shows zero excess capacity in the mid-Atlantic region by 2013. Curly lightbulbs and other tricks might extend that one additional year. That’s not selling fear, it’s simply electrical usage versus generating capacity.

Despite the lesson from Katrina, no urban area outside FL has put in place hurricane/emergency evacuation plans capable of their populations.

Although the odds are very low; the list of real, actual, and realized dangers to our lives is enormous. And if something can happen, it will at some point. Alternative shelter has always been a refuge, whether from epidemics, crime, political unrest, or the effects of war.

Perhaps Vivos deserves ridicule for some other reason, but it isn’t for the reasons given here.

Porlock Junior August 2, 2010 1:24 AM

All that was old is new again, and stupider than ever. I’ve said that before, and sadly expect to say it again, but this is real nostalgia time.

No doubt there will be bank financing available for these, just as there was 50 years ago when it was Russkies, not Mayans. And experts in theology and morality will pontificate on the morals of stocking guns to defend yourself against the thoughtless people who didn’t get a shelter, just like the last time around. And we’ll all sing,

Build the walls with bricks and mortar [Well, the fiberglass is new. Cheap flimsy stuff made in China, not like the Good Old Days.]
Fa la la la la, la la la.
Don’t forget the purified water,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Don we now asbestos raiment,
Easy terms and low down payment

See the burning town before us,
Ain’t we glad the walls aren’t porous,
Thank now our provident labor,
Love thy shelter, shoot thy neighbor.
Pfaugh la la la…

Clive Robinson August 2, 2010 5:23 AM

@ nonnymus, Nick P,

“… Bruce comes off as a bit hypocritical when he accuses others of selling fear”

The problem is “anyone” imparting “a word to the wise” can be accused of “selling” whatever it is that they are imparting their view on. Likewise for their actions.

Even a self sufficient hermit with little social contact can be accused of “selling” an alternative life style, by those who have something to gain or fear to lose. And if you think back Politicos often “posture” on just this sort of “alternative” especially if they can level a charge of “anarchist” “communist” or “against the American way” at them.

We see it even today in basic education (not just science-v-creationism) right through to genuine marketers of “FUD & Bull” with a side order of “Snake Oil”.

The thing to do first is to try and impartialy evaluate what the relevent aspects of the argument are. The second is to try and establish what the motivation of the participants is. Then try and deduce if the motivation is “for gain” to hide “for gain” or out of simple desire to inform.

Now one fly that enters the ointment is “recognition” the more recognisable you are the more likley you are to be accused. Not just by those with differeing views but also by those seaking to promote themselves in some way.

Thus the higher you rise above you peers not only the easier target you become but the more fire you attract.

The problem with fields of endevore that lack meaningful metrics is “testability” is often missing, worse as seen wit defense some things are not testable in a meaningful way which gives rise to religious behavior from some participants.

On balance my view point is that Bruce does a credibl job of presnting his argument when required and not showing bias when just presenting information that might be of interest to his blog readers. However it is at times difficult to differentiate his intention.

BF Skinner August 2, 2010 7:06 AM

re: Selling fear.

Vivos lost me after saying that ” the fear is already out there. We’re creating a solution.” And then put a countdown timer to 2012 on their website pandering to people’s superstition. Did they do the same thing during y2k?

THAT’S the fear mongering. THAT’s where they left the world of righteous contingency planning. THATs where they sold fear not their solution.

Any product that needs to create a market for itself is questionable.

Justify the waste of time and resources to prepare against unrealistic, wholly fantasitical events? Where’s the cost benefit in a 400,000$ shelter against tornado’s. Effective shelters can be built for far less.

Hey. I just invented a wonderful defense against a flying spaghetti monster. I’ll sell you a service contract for it. You’ll never see me at work, I’m discrete, but you’ll know I’m working for you because you won’t see any FSMs. I sell you peace of mind; not fear. Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it right? That’s jus’ common sense.

(2012 was a terrible movie btw I expected better from Emmerich. that’s 60 minutes I’ll never get back.)

Arnold August 2, 2010 8:28 AM

They want to make money, so they conjured something up to sell and are using an advertising technique. What’s the problem?

Instead of fear, they could guarantee that I could spend the next five years in a shelter with nine actresses named Jennifer.

Sean August 2, 2010 11:42 AM

Watching the local hippie communes over the years tells me that in the 1 to 5 years following, there on average will be 1 murder, 6 factional disputes leading to violence, 1 unintentional maiming and the dissolution of the commune before it achieves its supposed goal.

Sean August 2, 2010 3:04 PM

As a member of a community where all the survivalists tend to move in times of distress, I fully support fleecing them for personal gain and am content when they go home bankrupted by their own self-centered destructive behavior and lack of social cooperation with their fellow citizens of this planet.

No, your packages of seeds won’t keep you from starving, you have no experience growing anything here. Your first year will be total crop failure.

No, your blast shelter won’t save you, we don’t have anything here worth bombing, and we can simply bung plug the thing and wait for you to come out.

No, your guns wont save you, we live in a gun friendly environment, and your neighbors don’t trust you because you’ve gone on about how you will use them in a non-cooperative manner to survive.

Our two counties here have broken more survivalists than I care to count. Their follies litter the county, from the nuclear holocaust tire farm to the fortified house on the hill that’s been sitting in foreclosure for the last five years. Please come spend money, but we’re not sad to see you go… it just makes room for another mark.

mcb August 2, 2010 3:52 PM

@ BF Skinner

You lost me at…

“I expected better from Emmerich.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve watched Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow more times than I care to admit (or my family cares to remember), but only because I have a weakness for cheesy thrill rides.

Sam August 2, 2010 7:47 PM

@Craig Beere:
Your understanding (along with the other commentors here) is apparently uninformed. Aftr a nuclear blast, you only need to remain in a fallout shelter for 2-3 weeks.

In the 60’s the government produced helpfull manuals filled with real physics + construction guidelines. These are still available if you look for them..

Clive Robinson August 3, 2010 3:58 AM

@ Sean,

“No, your packages of seeds won’t keep you from starving, you have no experience growing anything here. Your first year will be total crop failure.”

As most probably will be yours after “the events” tha advertisers of these shelters claim they are good against.

Even a moderate event on the other side of the world (Krakatoa) can cause significant changes in climate for a year or so afterwards, significantly effecting crops and their yields.

Likewise in the Northern hemisphere the two weeks either side of the begining of March has a very very significant effect on crops that many farmers try to control with technology such as polytunnels and various chemicals etc.

The chances are the arable farmers in your area would be significantly hit if they could not source the technology at the appropriate time.

Also these sorts of extra seasonal weather changes tend to favour “oportunistic” plants (weeds) much more than production crops.

Anyway enough counter points, today I’m at home “jam making” the Blackberry season this year in the South East of England is earlier and due to recent rain is significantly better and if I dont pick today they will be to ripe.

BF Skinner August 3, 2010 6:52 AM

@mcb “cheesy thrill ride”
Okay I grant that for the day after tomorrow (although as a former new yorker the wave that came in over long island and just kept coming is forever in my heart) has a high Fromage frais ratio.

2012 was an action packed roller coaster ride, at 3 mph, and steep steep hills of 3 deg. When I get on a roller coaster I don’t want to feel like I could get out and walk faster or should get out and push.

mcb August 3, 2010 10:11 AM

@ sam

“Aftr a nuclear blast, you only need to remain in a fallout shelter for 2-3 weeks.”

Yeah, but without a wireless connection that’ll feel like a year!

David Conrad August 3, 2010 2:39 PM

“Dec. 21, 2012 … at which time some people expect an unknown apocalypse.”

All apocalypses are unknown by definition, since “apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”. It wouldn’t be very revelatory if it was known in advance, would it? While I’m at it, “Armageddon” is a place name, not an event.

mcb August 3, 2010 3:19 PM

@ BF Skinner

“You live in Ankh-Morpork?”

I’ll guess Sean lives in the vicinity of the Rogue River in southwest Oregon, the classic “survivalist” relocation destination during the Reagan era, thanks to the likes of Mel Tappan.

Nick P August 4, 2010 1:34 AM

@ David Conrad

You’ve won the War on Illiteracy. You’ve defeated those with inferior semantic knowledge. Now you have to make it to 2013. The first two were easier. If Barnes & Noble is to be believed, then you need all the luck you can get for the last one.

BF Skinner August 4, 2010 11:03 AM

EEEEEEEE Please disregard my last.

Damn google autocorrecting my speeling.

meant to say

@ David Conrad

“apocrylypse” maybe?

Gilbert August 15, 2010 10:04 AM

Getting to the shelter could be problematic in case of trouble. Bruce, you should check out the survivalists and their concept of BUG (Bug Out Bag). I have been watching videos on Youtube and checking a few survivalists forums. I would be curious in having your point of view about their ideas 🙂

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