BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- The rising number of weather-related catastrophes is fueling a growing interest in survivalism.
That trend was on display over the weekend at a convention in Bloomington. For a $15 admission fee, the Survival Preppers Expo offered displays of solar power, hydroponics, self-defense and security systems. The expo's organizers said they were providing a resource for people who want to be prepared for a catastrophic emergency.
The event buzzed with hundreds of people within half an hour of its opening on Saturday morning. They gathered in groups in front of tables and booths, asking questions and participating in demonstrations.
Expo organizer Nick Olsen, 43, did not allow media access to the so-called "preppers" who paid to attend. He said many of them avoid attention because in the event of a disaster, they do not want other people to know that they have a stockpile of supplies.
"So people are prepping, and people are not talking about it," Olsen said.
Olsen is a father of five who got into prepping with some friends, and together they would search YouTube and other websites looking for other preppers and asking for tips. Now Olsen's friends call him "Sgt. Prepper."
He and his wife, Bridget, the co-organizer of the event, live in the Minneapolis area but declined to identify the exact location.
She said they have raised their children as preppers -- but without scaring them: "We don't say, 'They're coming to get us -- grab your guns and let's prepare.' It's -- if you are prepared, you don't have to be afraid."
Bridget Olsen said storms like Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters seem to be happening in a steady stream, and they make her uneasy. She said preparing is something she can do to make herself feel better.
She and her husband couldn't find a centralized place to learn about prepping, so they came up with the idea of an expo, adding that it was good to make connections with people who will also have stockpiled resources after a catastrophe.
"You don't want to be the only person who survives," she said. "The more people who are prepared, the less chaos there will be."
And the more people who prepare, the better business is for the companies that cater to survivalists. At one point, a crowd formed around an object that looked like a 10-foot-tall inverted eggbeater.
Jay Nygard, president of Minnesota Wind Technology, which sells the contraption, explained that it was a vertical axis wind turbine that generates electricity. He said he finds many of his customers through events like this.
"We're starting to do well," Nygard said. "We've had to go through some certification process with the manufacturer and issues we've had to overcome, but we've been able to get over all the humps in our way and now we're ready to go."
Nygard added that the turbines are manufactured in Minnesota.
Other vendors included the security firm ADT and a company selling indoor generators.
Nick Olsen mentioned more suppliers at the event, including Rudy Rogers: "Everything at his table he has made from the woods."
"Here we have Discount Bee, so it's a mom-and-pop operation, and they sell bee supplies and a lot of things to people in the industry," Olsen said. "And a lot of people in the preparedness movement, they like honey because it lasts forever."
The Roseville-based business Persons Helping People was selling a wide black plastic box with a clear top, designed as a solar-powered stove for families in developing countries. It's a popular item here, at a price of $135.
Nick Olsen said he uses his frequently: "They work great. Kids and I, when we're going fishing, we'll put it out."
From behind the table, Mike Port said he started the nonprofit to sell stoves 20 years ago, and it's just now breaking even.
"We had to rely on donations, but we're almost at that point. It's really catching on, especially in the U.S.," Port said.
At a self-defense demonstration, a woman tried to stab a man wearing black protective padding. Olsen explained that he didn't want firearms at the expo because the political debate over guns is so charged their presence would detract from his mission to teach survival skills.
"NRA wanted to be here, and I actually appreciate what they do," he said. "But I didn't want them here because I didn't want the political stuff."
Olsen said that if some survivalists need guns to feel prepared, he doesn't object. After all helping people feel ready for anything is a mission for "Sgt. Prepper."
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