Bomb shelter business booms as Trump and North Korea posture

Ron Hubbard, president of Atlas Survival Shelters, stands amid a bomb shelter at his company’s headquarters in Montebello, Ca. Hubbard said his company’s sales have increased this year, and now include several Japanese costumers, amid rising fears of conflict between the United States and nuclear-armed North Korea.
Ron Hubbard, president of Atlas Survival Shelters, stands amid a bomb shelter at his company’s headquarters in Montebello, Ca. Hubbard said his company’s sales have increased this year, and now include several Japanese costumers, amid rising fears of conflict between the United States and nuclear-armed North Korea.

The showdown that pits North Korea’s Kim Jong Un against Donald Trump has once again raised the specter of nuclear annihilation. And that has done wonders for the bomb shelter industry.

Sales and inquiries have spiked, according to several of the U.S. companies that make money from doomsday fears.

“The increase in demand is everywhere. We are getting hundreds of calls,” said Ron Hubbard, president of Atlas Survival Shelters, a firm based in Montebello, California. Inquiries have slowed down as tensions have eased over the last week, but Hubbard said he still expects to have a banner year, selling 1,000 shelters at an average price of $25,000 each.

Bomb shelters are a cyclical industry, booming during crises and waning during periods of peace and predictability. Trump’s “fire and fury” threat, following news about North Korea’s nuclear weapons advancement, has helped boost sales, and not just in the United States.

Hubbard reports there is intensified demand in Japan, where he has opened a sales office in Osaka. He’s also opening a new 400,000-square-foot plant in Dallas, largely to serve the Japanese market.

“We are back in the 1960s again,” said Hubbard, referring to the Cold War demand for bomb shelters. “We’ve got a crazy man on one side and Donald Trump on the other.”

Gary Lynch, general manager of Rising S Shelters in Murchison, Texas, has also seen a rise in demand for his products, both in Japan and here. “It is all due to the rhetoric on what is going on in North Korea,” said Lynch, who said he has sold 67 bomb shelters internationally this year, mostly to Japan, compared to just nine for all of 2016.

On Saturday, North Korea fired three short-range missiles off its eastern coast, a response to ongoing U.S.-South Korea war games. Last month, it successfully test-launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles, a demonstration of its ability to strike distant targets with nuclear or chemical weapons.

In the United States, bomb shelter customers run the gamut. Some are homeowners recently alarmed about the threat of a nuclear strike. They also include survivalists and “preppers” — people preparing for man-made or natural disasters. Rising S is owned by a Texas prepper named Clyde Scott, who named his company after Jesus Christ, the rising son.

After Barack Obama was elected, Lynch said Rising S was contacted by customers worried about the government coming after their guns. After Trump was elected, a different clientele — Democrats — started calling. “People are worried that Trump would start a war,” he said.

Consumers shopping for a family bomb shelter have a world of options. At Rising S, Lynch’s most popular model is a 500-square-foot, steel-encased bunker that can accommodate a single family for $120,000. That price does not include underground installation or overseas shipping. But it does include an NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) filtration system, essential for surviving the aftermath of an attack.

Atlas markets 15 types of shelters, Hubbard said, but focuses on a corrugated steel pipe model, which can be decked out with luxuries or kept as a simple “man cave.” He said he’s brought his average price down from $100,000 to about $25,000 in the past six years.

“I think of myself as a modern-day Henry Ford, coming out with a shelter that everyone can afford,” Hubbard said.

Vivos, another California-based company, offers a completely different shelter experience. It sells shares in underground bunker complexes, a sort of doomsday condominium. Vivos — which means “to live” in Latin — says that its 80-person Indiana complex is completely sold out, with shares going for $35,000 per adult.

Although they vary in their products and customer base, U.S. shelter makers share one commonality: All have learned that paranoia can be a potent marketing pitch, especially when trust in government is on the wane.

Vivos, for instance, sports a website with images of viral pandemics, “prophetic” asteroid strikes, nuclear mushroom clouds and other calamities.

“People are sensing that a global life-changing event is just ahead. Millions of people believe that we are living in the ‘end times.’ The governments of the world know something and have been bunkering up for decades. Why is nobody telling you to prepare?” says the company.

In their sales pitches, bunker companies also promise customers complete confidentiality. Rising S continues to fend off tabloid rumors that it building a bunker for Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

Owners of shelters generally insist they don’t want their neighbors to know they have one, Hubbard said. “They would all be freaking out and banging on your door,” he said. “It is kind of like when a ship sinks — everyone swims to the floating life raft."

It’s a roller-coaster business. In 2014, Vivos scrapped plans for a 5,000-person shelter in Atchison, Kansas, after saying it was about to construct the world’s largest doomsday bunker.

Atlas Survival Shelters originated in Sacramento in the 1950s. It was then named “Atlas Bomb Shelter Distributing” and purchased ominous advertising warning about the “danger of a nuclear war.” But the company later went out of business as the Cold War cooled and people started joking about “Duck and Cover,” the 1951 civil defense film that featured Bert the Turtle.

Not all preparedness advocates are fans of private bunkers. “Anyone buying a shelter should first vet it carefully with someone knowledgeable about exposure to nuclear fallout,” said Dr. Robert Levin, public health officer of Ventura County, California.

Levin, who has recently been urging communities to more seriously prepare for a nuclear emergency, said there are other precautions people can take. One of these, he said, is for people to identify secure places within their home or office — or along their commute routes — where they can take cover during an emergency.

Hubbard, however, said there’s a growing segment of homeowners who want the ultimate protection. That includes people in Japan, where developers are building new communities with bomb shelters installed and marketed to lure customers.

There’s even increased interest in South Korea, he says.

“South Koreans generally don’t buy shelters because they are numb to the rhetoric coming out of North Korea,” he said. “But apparently Kim Jong Un has struck a chord.”

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth