Thomson Reuters Foundation
A bunker is seen at Fortitude Ranch in Mathias, West Virginia, on March 13, 2020. The narrow, worn track in West Virginia, close to the foothills of the Appalachians, leads to a camp set back in the woods, where a group of US survivalists began preparing for the collapse of civilization long before the arrival of the new coronavirus that has brought so much of the world to a halt. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm )
As Americans stockpile basic supplies, pet food and school items amid coronavirus-related closures and "shelter-in-place" orders, many are turning to another strategy to protect their families: fleeing to remote areas.
With branches in multiple US states, Fortitude Ranch dubs itself a "survival community" and offers paying members access to remote, secure grounds and residences under the motto "Prepare for the worst, enjoy the present".
The ranch has seen a "huge surge" of interest in joining its survival retreats amid the pandemic, said chief executive Drew Miller, who estimated inquiries have increase tenfold.
"People are concerned that if this virus mutates to be more lethal ... or if these short periods of quarantine don't work, the economy collapses, food distribution gets disrupted, then law and order can break down," Miller told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Underground bunkers offer protection from nuclear blasts, surrounded by a concrete wall "easily manned by defenders", according to the company's website, and shelters are stocked and furnished by members.
The business is designed to keep members safe "when society breaks down, there is widespread looting, marauding, lawlessness, and it's not safe to be in cities or suburbs," said Miller.
The United States has the largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world — about 215,000 on Thursday morning, according to John Hopkins University.
So far, cities have seen the most infections, although infectious-disease specialists warn that rural communities could eventually prove to be the most vulnerable to the pandemic, in part due to difficulties in accessing healthcare.
The real estate market is seeing the effects of residents' concerns.
On March 7, Internet searches for rural properties spiked by 364% over the previous year, according to data provided to the Thomson Reuters Foundation by Redfin, a national real estate broker.
Overall, daily searches for rural properties recorded by Redfin were up by an average of more than 125% during the first three weeks of March, far more than searches for other types of property.
"This thing [coronavirus] has people realizing they needed a bugout property long ago," said John E. Haynes, president of a North Carolina realty company that specializes in rural land, using a term derived from military slang for a retreat.
His Retreat Realty has seen a "big uptick" as news of the outbreak has grown, Haynes said, noting that through mid-March he had already sold about half of the properties he did for all of 2019 — which had already been a record year for him.
Most of those sales came in the previous 45 days, he said.
"Most had been contemplating such a move for months to years, but the virus has caused them to make the decision," Haynes said.
Interest in survivalist properties predates the current pandemic, however, and exists beyond US borders.
New Zealand has been a focus of such sales, while current online listings for "survival properties" include tracts in Central America, Canada and Europe.
Still, the surging interest in US rural areas has some worried: local residents.
The popular recreation area of Door County, Wisconsin, urged people to stay away in an advisory last week, particularly those who "have a seasonal or second home" in the area.
Half of the county's population is elderly, and the area is served by asmall, 25-bed hospital, said Dave Lienau, chairman of the county board.
Out-of-state residents own over 60% of the property and second homes in the county, he said in a phone interview, and now "they're looking to get away from where they, thinking it's safer here".
The county is not enforcing the guidance, however, and Lienau estimated hundreds of people have arrived in the last 10 days.
"We're still seeing a lot of people show up here, a lot of license plates from California, Iowa, Missouri — all over the place," he said.
That influx is putting a strain on other resources, as well: Lienau pointed to a grocery store in the small town of Sister Bay that has gone through 10 times its normal weekly supplies.
Other rural areas have taken steps to enforce such restrictions.
Dare County, a popular tourist area on barrier islands along the North Carolina coast, has prohibited all entry to both visitors and "non-resident property owners", confirmed county public information officer Dorothy Hester.
The restrictions are about protecting "the public health and safety of our community", she said.
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