WASHINGTON - The U.S. government maintains a series of deep underground bunkers. Their purpose is mostly to protect the president and top U.S. government officials from a catastrophic incident. Now, one man is on a mission to save civilians by building a cavernous, privately funded underground shelter. But is it realistic?
Robert Vicino believes so.
He describes himself as a spiritual person who thinks humans are living in “end times”. Vicino foresees scenarios that could lead to Armageddon: a nuclear or terrorist attack, a pole shift, a solar flare, a wayward meteorite, a major power outage, a worldwide tsunami, or a super volcano.
To save lives, his company, Vivos, is building what it touts as the world’s largest private underground survival shelter. The facility will house up to 5,000 people and include as much floor space - 686,000 square meters - as New York city’s Empire State Building, once the world’s tallest structure.
Vicino, who is in his 50s, felt an urge more than 30 years ago to build the shelter.
“Somehow, I had this inspiration that I needed to build a shelter deep underground for as many as 5,000 people for what is coming our way," he said. "And the key word is coming, and the question is from where and what. I didn’t know the answer. I still don’t.”
Skeptics say the catastrophe Vicino envisions will never happen. He thinks otherwise.
“All of those things could happen in an instant," Vicino said. "They could have happened five minutes ago, and we don’t even know it yet. I often hear from people this is crazy, this will never happen in our lifetime. To that I like to say ignoring reality will not protect you from it.”
The shelter, to be located in the midwestern U.S. town of Atchison, Kansas, was once a U.S. Army facility used to store weapons. It sits 40 meters below a limestone mountain.
Vicino said, once completed, the shelter will have doors that can withstand a 20-megaton blast within an eight-kilometer radius.
It will hold as many as 1,500 recreational vehicles, he said, and a food supply for up to one year per person. Only members who pay a one-time fee of $20,000 can use it. Anyone in the world can join.
Paul Seyfried is on the advisory board of the American Civil Defense Association, which prepares for manmade and natural disasters. He questioned some of the shelter’s logistical details.
“The only reservation I would have is who is going to be in charge of law enforcement and when you have so many people put together, especially in recreational vehicles, you’re going to have to deal with carbon monoxide and exhaust pollution," Seyfried said. "There are going to be a lot of generators. How are they going to handle energy and power management and then when you put thousands of people together from all these different backgrounds with varying amounts of food and other support … I’m just trying to get my mind around all the problems they’re going to have with that.”
Plus, how will people reach the shelter in time to escape a disaster?
The key, Vicino said, is how much notice exists that an incident is imminent. Seyfried ridiculed that notion, saying, for instance, it takes only 15 minutes longer for a Russian missile to reach Atchison than Switzerland.
Then there’s Vivos’ description of the shelter as a “resort” and the “ultimate vacation destination for family and friends.”
Vicino said members are free to enjoy the activities set up above and below ground, such as archery and martial arts training. Until a calamity sets in, he said, the area will resemble a “Disneyland” in a “boy scout sense.”
“The resort is something that you will enjoy prior to lockdown," Vicino said. "At the moment of lockdown, if and when that ever happens, it’ll then become a survival shelter.”
Jacque Pregont is president of the Atchison Chamber of Commerce. To her, the shelter is an economic venture that will attract tourists and stimulate the town’s economy. She also believes it will be a safe place should an apocalyptic incident occur.
“In conversations I've had with Robert, he sees it as both also," Pregont said. "So I think people can buy it for several reasons, and I would hope that they are going to end up coming here and spending some time here and not just waiting for a catastrophic event.”
Perhaps 5,000 people in a shelter in Kansas will survive such an incident. That's Robert Vicino's goal.