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Boom time for bunker business and doomsday capitalists in the US

Personalised disaster prep has now grown into a multimillion-dollar business, fuelled by a seemingly endless stream of new and revamped threats

An underground, heated swimming pool, complete with a waterslide, for residents at the Survival Condo. Survival homes now dot America's interior.

Larry Hall, founder of the Survival Condo, a former nuclear missile vault that has been converted into high-end residences, at work in its security room, in Glasco, Kansas.

New York

IN his pitch to potential buyers, American Larry Hall touts his condominium's high ceilings and spacious living rooms. Then there are the swimming pool, saunas and movie theatre. But what really sets the development apart, in his view, is its ability to survive the apocalypse.

Mr Hall has converted a former military nuclear missile vault into a luxury condominium built 15 stories into the Earth's crust. He is a leader among a new group of real estate developers investing in the United States' central prairies and Western foothills: doomsday capitalists.

Americans have, for generations, prepared themselves for society's collapse. They built fallout shelters during the Cold War and basement supply caches ahead of Y2K.

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But in recent years, personalised disaster prep has grown into a multimillion-dollar business, fuelled by a seemingly endless stream of new and revamped threats, from climate change to terrorism, cyber attacks and civil unrest.

Bunker builders and brokers have emerged as key players in this field. And they see the interior of the country, with its wide-open spaces, as a prime place to build.

Aiding them is history. During the Cold War, the military spent billions of dollars constructing nuclear warheads and hiding them in underground lairs around the nation, often in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Those hideaways, emptied of their bombs, are now on the market and enterprising civilians are buying them (relatively) cheap and flipping the properties. Eager customers abound.

The 12 apartments in Mr Hall's "Survival Condo", as he calls it, begin at US$1.3 million. When he started selling the condos around 2011, he said, all the units sold within months.

To Mr Hall and many others in his field, this is a calling, not just a business. "I am saving lives," he said during a recent visit to his bunker, the exact location of which he insisted be kept under wraps.

He entered the building's elevator as it began its long descent into the earth. He said: "To me, this is something to feel good about."

These projects have plenty of sceptics, among them John Hoopes, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas who spent years studying the myth that the world would end in 2012.

Prof Hoopes accused doomsday investors of hawking "survival porn", which he described as a "hypermasculine fantasy" that danger is near and a select few will be able to save themselves and their families - if they are prepared. "Fear sells even better than sex," he said. "If you can make people afraid, you can sell them all kinds of stuff, and that includes bunkers."

But survival homes now dot America's interior, pulling in clients who are part of a larger movement of people who are choosing to retreat from society, or at least ready themselves for escape.

Kiki Bandilla, 52, a health insurance agent in Colorado, distanced herself from people she called "Chicken Littles", who think "the sky is falling". She characterised her membership at a survival community called Fortitude Ranch as a reasonable insurance policy. "I don't like to be dependent on anything, be it big government, big food sources or big pharma," she said. "My interest isn't from a place of fear. My interest is from a place of freedom."

In recent years, Prepper Camp, a three-day disaster-preparedness and homesteading expo in North Carolina, has turned into a survivalist's Burning Man.

PrepperCon, outside Salt Lake City, has drawn thousands of visitors. Bunker-in-a-box companies have proliferated, sending ready-made shelters to suburban doorsteps. High-end real estate agents now track down hideaways for California techies and Texas oil executives.

In Las Vegas, an underground bunker built by Avon Cosmetics executive Girard Henderson, featuring a mid-century chef's kitchen and a wood-burning fireplace, is on sale for US$18 million.

In Kansas, one couple has been selling old missile silos through a company called 20th Century Castles. In Colorado, a former weapons compound featuring half a mile of underground tunnels is listed on the real estate site LoopNet for US$4.2 million.

In Indiana, Robert Vicino, a California property developer, has converted a former government site into an underground mansion called Vivos that he says is "like a very comfortable four-star hotel".

He has also purchased 575 former weapons cellars in South Dakota that he is turning into a subdivision he calls the "largest survival community on Earth".

Bunker clients say they are united not by ideology but by a belief that global forces have left societies increasingly vulnerable to large-scale disaster.

In Kansas, Mr Hall, 62, of Survival Condo, has become one of this industry's best-known businessmen, mostly because of the complexity of his operation and his savvy promotion efforts.

The condo sits down a country road, past grazing cattle, a wire fence and a guard in fatigues gripping a rifle. Visitors enter through a concrete dome; below sit the apartments, outfitted with fake windows made of digital screens; the subterranean swimming pool; a dog park; a weapons cache; and storerooms for food. Buyers pay monthly condominium fees of about US$2,600.

Mr Hall has outfitted the building with five air filters, connected it to the electrical grid, drilled a well to the local aquifer, and set up diesel generators, a wind turbine and a battery bank, all for backup power.

The doors that cap the entire operation weigh 16 tonnes, and close behind visitors with a booming slam.

Mr Hall spent a career building data centres for defense contractors like Northrop Grumman. After 9/11, shaken by the attacks, he hatched a plan to build protected information hubs; when he saw that the market was glutted, he turned to protecting people.

It cost Mr Hall US$20 million to remodel what was in fact a hole in the ground, money he raised from pre-sale of the units. Because few banks issue loans for bunkers, his clients financed their apartments themselves, wiring him the cash.

More recently, he has purchased a second Kansas vault. He mostly broke even on the initial project, he said, and swears that interest in the second one "is picking up".

But build-out of the new bunker, which is three times as big as the first, now occupies most of his time. There is so much to get done, he added, and the end could come any minute. NYTIMES