To reach the world’s first everything-proof underground luxury community, I drive east out of Barstow, California, 50 or so miles into the Mojave Desert, then turn down an unmarked gravel road, park in a barren lot surrounded by razor wire, enter what appears to be a small cinderblock garage, and walk down two steep flights of reinforced-concrete stairs, at which point the project’s enthusiastic promoter, Robert Vicino, greets me with an outstretched hand, slams a 3,000-pound blast door behind us, and asks this question: “Do you have a family?”
Then: Do I have life insurance? Would I like to have 10 times the life insurance I already have? Would I like to have something even better? Because I can. The structure in which we are now standing was built by AT&T in 1965 to protect telephone infrastructure from a nuclear attack, but now it can protect something far more important: me and my loved ones. For just $50,000 each—half off for kids—I can buy a fractional share of the Terra Vivos underground shelter network, a project that will include at least 19 more “community bunkers,” each of them located within 150 to 200 miles of a major American city. Terra Vivos is a concrete-and-steel solution to the end times, whether brought about by climate change or nuclear war or even an unavoidable realignment of the cosmic order. Wherever I happen to be at that terrible moment, I’ll have a place to live the morning after. “I’m not selling life insurance,” Vicino explains. “I’m providing life assurance.”
The physical specifications required to assure life are striking. The Barstow bunker was built to withstand a 50-megaton nuclear blast 10 miles away, 450mph winds, a magnitude-10 earthquake, 10 days of 1,250°F surface fires, and three weeks beneath any flood. Vicino says that a soon-to-be-installed air-filtration system will also neutralize any biological, chemical or nuclear attacks. The Barstow branch will stock enough food and clothing to sustain 135 people for at least a year, and in a lifestyle that Vicino describes as compact but luxurious, like being on a cruise ship. Getting on board requires a $5,000 deposit, he says, to be held in escrow until the bunker is ready to move into, at which point the remainder is due. As of August, several hundred people had put their money down for a spot in one of his bunkers, he says; 75 for Barstow thus far.
The idea to build and sell post-apocalyptic bunkers weighed on Vicino for many years before he acted. In 1980 he saw a replica of the Mayan calendar, the ancient stone carving that predicts that the world will end on December 21, 2012. Vicino recalls the moment clearly. “It just gave me this gut-wrenching feeling that I needed to convert a mine to a shelter for 1,000 people with everything you’d need to survive for a long period of time.” The decades passed, however, and it wasn’t until this year, the end times fast approaching, that Vicino purchased the Barstow bunker for an undisclosed amount. He has six more under contract: one in North Carolina, one in Pennsylvania, two in New York, and two in “the Midwest.” (Vicino won’t give precise locations, citing the need to stay hidden from intruders.)
Now, as 2012 approaches, Vicino says he is actually more worried about 2013, when solar activity is expected to increase significantly. He says an extreme solar storm could fire a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse at Earth, crash the power grid, and thereby trigger anarchy. Even if the world escapes that fate, it could still face an asteroid, or a plague, or a war. Anything could happen. “2012 is just the impetus to bring the project forward because there’s a great deal of concern now, but these bunkers could be of use anytime in the next 200 years,” Vicino says. “We’re building for whenever.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.