(USA Today) Brekke Wagoner looks out of the windows of her North Carolina home and sees disaster coming.
Not immediately, but someday, as hurricanes and other storms supercharged by climate change barrel up the Eastern Seaboard, drenching neighborhoods, knocking out power and destroying roads.
But it’s not the storms she worries about, not exactly.
Instead, she worries that an incompetent federal government run by someone like current Republican frontrunner and former president Donald Trump will botch the humanitarian response to a predictable disaster. She’s one of a growing number of people on both sides of the political divide who are preparing for the possibility of a disastrous collapse of society following the 2024 election.
Wagoner, 39, represents a relatively small but growing segment of Americans who consider themselves “preppers” ‒ people prepared to survive without government assistance during disasters. Those disasters could encompass anything from a major storm to widespread looting sparked by election anger.
More Americans preparing for disaster ahead of election
In the past 12 months, 39% of Millennials and 40% of Gen Z reported having spent money on prepping, according to Finder.com, which has collected similar data since at least 2017. Overall, almost 30% of Americans surveyed reported taking some steps toward emergency preparedness last year, up from about 25% in 2017, according to the annual Finder survey.
“On the left, you have people afraid (Trump’s) going to declare himself dictator of the United States and people on the left are going to end up as targets in some sort of authoritarian system,” said prepping expert and author Brad Garrett. “On the right, it’s general malaise and a fear of society unraveling. They point to these smash-and-grab robberies, riots and protests.”
One expert consulted by USA TODAY said a failure or perceived failure of government is almost always the trigger for people to begin prepping. He said the number of younger, more liberal people prepping indicates a loss of trust in government.
“That’s the impetus for all the preppers I’ve ever dealt with: They saw something and felt the government could not or would not help,” said Prof. Chad Huddleston of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, an anthropologist who has studied the prepping community extensively.
Huddleston said it’s important to distinguish between the large numbers of people who consider being prepared for emergencies their civic and family responsibility and those who are, sometimes eagerly, awaiting societal collapse. But he said the number of people deliberately preparing for a crisis tied to a Trump-Biden election is growing.
“On one side, people think Trump may bring a New World Order and ‘they’ will come and get us so we need to be ready,” he said. “And then on the other hand you have the communities who think things will get just get worse so we have to help ourselves.”
Count Wagoner among those people. She sees climate change as a worsening existential threat that the government isn’t prepared for, especially if a Republican is in charge.
“The intensification of our natural storm seasons is the No. 1 thing that’s going to happen to you,” she said. “An electromagnetic pulse that takes out the electrical grid could happen. A nuclear war might happen. A civil war might happen. But a storm will happen.”
Prepping is becoming increasingly diverse
While the movement has long been associated with libertarian-fueled apocalyptic scenarios like a zombie infestation or the total collapse of modern society, as highlighted by the 2020 television show Doomsday Preppers, Wagoner is among younger, more liberal people who say the Trump administration flubbed its responses during the 2017 hurricane season, particularly in Puerto Rico, and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall, prepping appears to reflect the deep uncertainty many Americans feel: A recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll found that 67% of Americans think the country is facing either bigger problems than usual or is in the most troubled state they’ve ever seen. The poll of 1,000 registered voters, taken Oct. 17-20 by landline and cell phone, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Experts say younger preppers like Wagoner reflect broad concerns for the nation’s future as we choose our next president. Some are stockpiling weapons and medical supplies in armored bunkers. Others are urging their neighbors to set aside enough food to survive for weeks or months without outside assistance.
“If you can be prepared, you won’t be a drain on the resources needed to help the people who didn’t prepare,” said Wagoner, who has a 90-day supply of food set aside for her six-person family. Wagoner, who works for a nonprofit, runs a YouTube channel where she offers prepping advice to young people, urban residents and people who have small homes.
“In the face of an apocalypse, I want to come out and calmly help people,” she said. “I want to be able to create a society that instead of wanting to shoot every stranger, understands our interdependence and creates a better society.”
Many disaster-response experts say the ideas espoused by Wagoner is the most reasonable and responsible approach for Americans to take, building off the assumption that neighbors, churches and nonprofits like the Red Cross or Salvation Army will always play a frontline role in helping recover from a disaster, filling in the gaps until the federal government gets organized.