Drew Miller, a retired Air Force colonel, has identified about 50 scenarios that could trigger a collapse of society: A terrorist group releases the human-to-human transmissible version of the avian flu in the crowded hubs of a busy airport like JFK or Hong Kong. Or a nuclear bomb detonated among the polar clouds that hang beneath the ozone layer — a place where only spy planes fly — sends a wave of high-intensity energy crashing down on the electric grid.
It’s all hypothetical. But to Miller, what happens next — how you are going to survive — is what really matters. The U.S. president and members of Congress are spirited away to bunkers under the White House and in West Virginia. The superrich scamper to luxury condos buried deep in the ground in New Zealand.
And the rest are left to fend for themselves.
That’s why Miller is focused on giving America’s middle class an escape route. He’s the CEO of Fortitude Ranch, a company that offers year-round lodging in a network of ranches which, should disaster strike, become fortified survival communities that clients — namely, those who exist between hardcore, off-grid survivalists and the aforementioned superrich — take refuge in. The motto of the company? “Prepare for the Worst … Enjoy the Present.”
“It’s kind of the country club style,” Miller says to describe Fortitude Ranch’s business model. Except dues cover not just maintaining amenities but also stockpiling beans and laxatives. And there are no receptionists, only a hardened staff trained in chemical warfare. It’s like a timeshare that switch-hits as an underground bunker.
Fortitude Ranch is one of a number of companies profiting off of the nation’s heightened state of anxiety. Over the past decade, worries about economic instability, deepening political discord, epidemics and extreme climate events have prompted an increasing number of Americans to start stockpiling food and plan evacuation routes. More than half of respondents surveyed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2020 said they’d been prepared for disasters for at least a year, and 26% said they intended to gear up, a percentage nearly tripled from 9% in 2013.
A near craze in preparation culture has spawned a multibillion-dollar prepper industry that offers everything from freeze-dried meals to backyard bunkers. But Miller’s business venture goes further, blurring the lines between real estate, security and leisure — and hinting at what the future of the industry might be.
Today, Miller’s company counts clients at nearly 1,000. He’s currently developing a fifth location in Texas, with plans to open additional ranches in Wisconsin and Tennessee in the coming years. He’s also diversifying his offering to make it more appealing — clients interested in living full time in a survival community will soon be able to lease tiny homes in Nevada, at prices ranging from $60,000 to $300,000.
By the numbers, the business model seems to be catching on. But some wonder whether it can deliver on its promise.
Militant preparedness entered Drew Miller’s life at an age earlier than most. As a child in the Cold War era, he grew up 50 miles from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which hosted the bombardment arm of the U.S. Air Force. Upon reading one day that Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles had an accuracy of 50 miles, he thought, “They’re going to aim it at Offutt Air Force base and hit my house here in Lincoln!”
This introduction to the prospect of annihilation might explain why after earning a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard in 1982, he focused his doctorate there on the Soviet nuclear threat to NATO troops in Germany. Underground shelters, he wrote in 1985, would go a long way toward shielding soldiers from a blast.
The potential for a nuclear holocaust waned eventually, but stints as an intelligence officer in the Air Force between 1982 and 1995 and deployments in Iraq and Bosnia reinforced Miller’s belief that it takes only a few minutes for members of society to turn on one another when one’s survival is at stake.
By the time he retired from the military in 2010, Miller was certain that society’s stability hung by a thread. Among the many scenarios he believed could launch humanity on a path to self-destruction, bioterrorism became his bugbear. “Bioengineered viruses created and released by an individual could destroy a country and, perhaps, our species,” he wrote in The American Interest in 2016.
He started brainstorming business ideas over email and phone calls with Rick Cox, a buddy who served as a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist in the National Guard. Both agreed that communities of like-minded people — not isolated individuals — would make it through a collapse. So, why not build their own?
They came up with a name (Fortitude Ranch) and a business model (a network of a dozen compounds situated within a 500-mile radius of any major city, accessible to paying members). Dues start at $1,050 a year after a $1,850 down payment, and members are entitled to up to two weeks’ vacation at any ranch in the network — and to a spot when things got bad.
When the two men started shopping for properties for the first ranch in West Virginia, they tried to conceal their end goal from real estate agents. After all, the first rule of prepping is, “Don’t tell anyone you’re a prepper,” Miller says.
To investors, “prepper” sounded like “paranoid nut.” As soon as he uttered the word at startup events, venture capitalists “just stopped looking at me,” he recalls. When he eventually found a suitable property, he had to use his and his wife’s savings and get a mortgage to buy it.
It might not have reached financiers at the time, but momentum was slowly building behind the prepper movement in the early 2010s. Survival expos sprouted in Florida, Kansas and Colorado, bringing together a colorful mix of vendors — from hydroponic farmers to security consultants. Dozens of podcasts with names like “Survivalist Prepper” and “Casual Preppers” launched, giving advice on what to pack in a bag, what kind of shelter is fit for survival and what to cook during an emergency.
Today, the prepping industry is just that: an industry. Entrepreneurs in the space overlap their business plans with real estate, retail, outdoor equipment and medicine. At the high end, a handful of companies offer a survival option, a community and protection. Survival Condo sells ritzy condos starting at $1.5 million in a missile silo in Kansas. In South Dakota’s Black Hills, those willing to shell out $45,000 can lease one of 575 reinforced bunkers from Vivos.
“The bunker industry is a lot like the automobile industry in that there is a full spectrum of vehicles with different capabilities and costs,” Larry Hall, the CEO of Survival Condo, wrote in an email.
Fortitude Ranch sees itself as an open-air, cheaper alternative to these “glitzy” services. Miller says his objective is to “have some good people survive, not just the marauders who make it or superwealthy people who can buy a place like Survival Condo.”
Hall takes no offense with the characterization. “I applaud anyone who plans for a rainy day and everyone does not have the same financial resources.”
Fortitude Ranch’s fifth property, located in central Texas, is currently under construction. As of now, a mobile home shares a tract of barren land with a buried shelter, two bulging black water cisterns, a white wooden shack and propane generators. A log house sits at the northern edge, two stories shy of completion. The 25-acre property slopes down from there, partly covered in tangled foliage, oaks and cacti.
The ranch isn’t owned by Fortitude Ranch but by David Tice, a prominent fund manager who bought it as a safe haven for his family. But it didn’t take him long to realize he wouldn’t know how to fix his well if it broke down.
“I’m a guy with virtually very few survival and mechanical skills,” Tice tells me. After meeting at a survival training led by Miller, the two men agreed to team up: Tice would lend him the property and pay for improvements while Miller would shape it into a bona fide survival compound.
“So now his family will come here,” Miller says in a matter-of-fact tone. “They’ll still be in their nice bedrooms, but now they’ll survive. They won’t get slaughtered. They’re in the middle of Fortitude Ranch.”
These bleak, strangely confident comments match the sense of impending danger conveyed by the Remington handgun hanging on his waist, his tactical dress shirt and the brown ankle boots he wears. Miller looks like the sheriff of a town yet to rise from the ground. He walks stiff-legged as he gives me a tour of the ranch, four guard dogs tagging along.
For a few months, he and Ari Bailor, a former member of the Israeli Defense Forces employed as “ranch manager” (who joined the company after hearing about it on a podcast hosted by Tim Pool, the political pundit and a Fortitude Ranch investor), have been laboring to make the compound disaster ready. They’re building a clinic in an outbuilding a few feet down from the mobile home and stockpiling beans, rice and milk of magnesia in blue storage boxes, as well as fish antibiotics (as regular antibiotics can only be obtained through prescriptions from physicians).
But their efforts are focused mostly on the log house, which the two men are building with oak and pine logs shipped from Missouri and Colorado. When completed, clients will be able to buy entire floors for $150,000. The house will also serve as a communal space for book clubs, and one of its walls will be turned into a rock climbing wall, Miller says. He’s also thinking of having a giant waterslide installed. He says he doesn’t plan to have the building inspected to make sure it meets safety standards. Asked about this, Tice says that “the guy’s a brilliant individual, and he’s built log cabins for decades.”
When I point out to Miller that Fortitude Ranch seems to be hewing closer to high-end competitors like Survival Condo, he pushes back. “It’s still not $1.5 million,” he says, adding that cheaper options are available, like bunk beds in a closet-sized room for $1,450 a year.
“But now we’re getting people who, you know, have a lot of money,” he says. To deal with prospective clients, Miller brought in Alicia Cachuela, a former consultant for Survival Condo.
April, a 39-year old clerical worker in South Carolina, came across Fortitude Ranch while looking for survival communities online. The low price tag for membership makes it an attractive option, she says. “$1,000 a year is not that bad,” she says. But she has doubts about the true purpose of the company. “I don’t know if it’s a way to make money, or if it’s a way to be an excellent tool.”
But Miller is supremely confident in his ability to shepherd his community through hard times. “I’m sure we can make it through the worst disaster,” he says. “If it is survivable, we will make it.”