(Reuters) - With the closest known U.S. cases of Ebola diagnosed about 160 miles away in Dallas, Cary Griffin is taking no chances.
If, as the former correctional officer fears, the virus spreads to hundreds of people, Griffin is headed to the woods.
“I’ll do what the English royalty did to survive the bubonic plague,” Griffin said, referring to King Charles II’s flight to the countryside during the Great Plague of London in 1665-66. “I’m going into the country.”
Griffin, 27, of Huntsville, Texas, is among a growing if loosely-defined segment of Americans, known as “preppers,” who plan, train and stockpile in preparation for a natural calamity or societal breakdown.
For many, the three cases of Ebola diagnosed in the United States so far since late September represent a new potential disaster and a reason to run to the store.
Preppers are at the extreme edge of concern over Ebola, which has led to a series of false alarms driven by fear. Government efforts to stop the virus spreading from the three worst-hit West African countries, where more than 4,500 have died, include some travel restrictions and enhanced screening at airports.
Chad Huddleston, an anthropologist at the University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, who studies preppers and estimates their numbers in the United States in the low hundreds of thousands, said those he has talked to are more concerned with undue public fear than with contracting Ebola.
The virus was diagnosed in a Liberian visitor who was infected in his home country and two nurses who treated him at a Dallas, Texas hospital when he was dying and at his most contagious. Both nurses have been moved out of the state for treatment in hospitals equipped to treat Ebola patients.
U.S. preppers have their roots in Cold War-era civil defense programs, said Vincent DeNiro, editor of Prepper & Shooter magazine.
The movement’s profile rose thanks in part to the National Geographic Channel TV show “Doomsday Preppers,” and includes strains as disparate as off-grid homesteaders in the Great Plains, wilderness experts in the Mountain West and suburbanites across the country with caches of food and guns.
For many of them, gearing up for Ebola has meant fortifying their stocks of freeze-dried food, water, filtration devices and hazardous material, or hazmat, suits, which experts say can be useless if not taken off properly.
Some are also honing plans to meet teams of fellow survivalists at prearranged locations, or, like Griffin, who has no spouse or children, preparing to go it alone in the wilderness.
Stockpiling has led to shortages of a range of survival gear, from food with a shelf-life in excess of 20 years to impermeable medical suits, according to vendors. At Cheaper Than Dirt, a leading online survivalist retailer based in Texas, dozens of varieties of freeze-dried meals are out of stock, from packets of cheesy lasagna to 60-serving buckets of mushroom stroganoff.
Supplies such as hazmat suits and protective gloves - sometimes called Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) gear - are running low, said Richard Smith, general manager of The Survival Center, an online retailer in Washington state, about 1,500 miles from Texas. Smith boasted of snagging last week the final wholesale personal protection suits and respirator masks to be had on the West Coast.
Using hazmat gear without proper training is of limited benefit, said magazine editor DeNiro, who has encouraged his readers to stock up on at least six months of food.
“Buying NBC equipment and not learning how to use it properly is like buying a gun and ammunition and never practicing with it,” he said.
Many preppers, who have focused their planning on everything from solar storms and earthquakes to nuclear holocaust, are skeptical of government - a view that dovetails with concerns, voiced by lawmakers and medical experts, that U.S. authorities mishandled the response to the virus when it emerged at a Texas hospital.
At a prepper and self-defense school in south Florida, fear over Ebola has meant a rush of students, about 54 in the past two weeks, to take a primer course on how to avoid contracting the virus, said David D’Eugenio, founder of the HomeSafety Academy in Lake Park.
“For the past week, I can’t even tell you what our hours are like with all the people coming through,” he said.
An avid prepper and retired firefighter in West Palm Beach, Florida, Bob Boike, who attends D’Eugenio’s school, believes that an Ebola outbreak in the United States will likely be averted, but he is taking no chances.
Boike, 58, who co-leads of a team of 32 preppers and their families, with multiple secret locations provisioned to last them a year or more, has stocked up on water and canned food, having already socked away an ample supply of masks, gloves and other medical supplies, he said.
“This is our insurance for if and when there is societal breakdown,” Boike said.
Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by Grant McCool