Jennifer had already taken the necessary precautions the night Hurricane Maria came barreling through the Caribbean. The 46-year-old stay-at-home mom, who lives on two acres of land with her husband and four children atop a mountain in Manati, Puerto Rico, was ready to make use of the filter she’d purchased for sterilizing rainwater in case the taps ran dry. And she didn’t have to worry about food, because her pantry was already stocked with two-and-a-half years’ worth: giant buckets of lentils, flour, and rice; shelves lined with mason jars of fruits and vegetables she had grown and canned herself.
What Jennifer, a self-described prepper who declined to share her last name for security reasons, didn’t anticipate was the sheer force of Maria’s rains and 155 mile per hour winds — and how little the storm shutters would do to protect her home. “I was taking water out of the bedrooms, the living rooms, the hallways,” she says. “The house was flooded.” At one point, a piece of debris flew off a neighbor’s roof and got stuck between the outside wall of Jennifer’s pantry and the storm shutters, ripping off a pair of windows in the process.
“Everything started flying out,” she says. Buckets and cans rolled out of the pantry and down the side of the mountain. Hurricane Maria claimed almost all the food Jennifer had stockpiled, in addition to more than 30 chickens, two cows, four pigs, six ducks, and a turkey. “I had prepped for two and a half years, and I ended up with preps for six months,” she says.
Still, Jennifer says her preps helped her family get through the initial aftermath. Because she’d stored about three days’ worth of food in each of the bedrooms in her house, they were able to get by until a friend in the States sent additional supplies. As month after month rolled on with no running water in the region, the rain-catching and filtration system she’d set up also proved life-saving — especially amid concerns about contaminated water on the island and the mainland’s notoriously slow-moving and inadequate relief efforts.
People in the disaster preparedness community often say they are readying for the “shit hits the fan” moments: some future calamity, however plausible or implausible, when we are forced to fall back on our possessions and ingenuity. Doomsday Preppers, the long-running National Geographic show that popularized the term “prepper,” introduced mainstream America to a slew of quirky individuals — mostly men with a love of pricey gadgets and the Second Amendment — and the highly improbable doomsday scenarios for which they’d chosen to prepare.
But women like Jennifer aren’t preparing for a currency collapse, biowarfare pandemic, or any of the other fantastical global crises that have made America’s prepper subculture synonymous with bunkers, bitcoin, and Infowars conspiracy theories. Instead, they view prepping as a lifestyle — one that has very little to do with defending their territory from hostile invaders and everything to do with the more quotidian business of providing for your family and running a home.
“It’s terrifying when you’ve got a new little one and no money to take care of her.”
If you spend enough time on the survivalist internet, you’ll stumble upon a number of woman-run blogs specializing in a softer side of prepping, one that combines aspects of survivalism, healthy eating, and home economics. They have names like Survival Mom, Apartment Prepper, and Organic Prepper and can boast Facebook and Pinterest followings in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Together with a number of online forums and private Facebook groups, they form the basis of a loose-knit community with a shared interest in a constellation of traditional and contemporary domestic practices, including long-term and short-term food storage, growing and preserving food, frugal grocery shopping, family first aid, and basic self-defense. It’s a community found primarily online, but it also includes the occasional in-person trade expo or foraging class. For Jennifer and other mothers who partake in this feminine strain of survivalism, being prepared is more than a means of shoring up for some unseen future disaster. It’s a form of self-empowerment in the present.