San Diego businessman selling spaces in Mojave doomsday bunker

Terra Vivos survival shelter founder Robert Vicino opens a 3,000 pound “blast proof” door at the Mojave Desert bunker-in-progress.
Terra Vivos survival shelter founder Robert Vicino opens a 3,000 pound “blast proof” door at the Mojave Desert bunker-in-progress.
Steven Cuevas/KPCC

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Deep in California’s Mojave Desert, about halfway between Barstow and Las Vegas, a real estate entrepreneur is counting on a big catastrophe. He’s building a string of luxury disaster shelters. Investors believe it’s their best hope in the event of natural disaster, terrorist attack or worse.

You’re unlikely to find the secret bunker without an invitation from the Terra Vivos Underground Survival Network. I got mine, along with a map and directions to rendezvous with a company representative at a remote Mojave Desert gas station. From there, I’d be escorted to the site.

I meet my guide, Dan Hotes, an affable 40-something realtor from the Seattle area. It turns out the bunker is just a quick jog from the gas station.

“So this is just like the upper housing area, drop down 30 feet into the heart of the facility,” says Hotes as we enter the bunker through a nondescript, though fenced in, outbuilding.

Hotes leads me down a long stairwell and into the belly of what is actually an old AT&T routing station. The immaculate, cement-lined telecommunications bunker was built during the Cold War. It’s one of about half a dozen out-of-commission telecommunications bunkers scattered in strategic locations across the United States. Dan Hotes’ primary job is to locate and investigate potential Terra Vivos bunker locations like this one across the country.

This 10,000-square-foot space is the first in what developer and mastermind Robert Vicino hopes will be a worldwide network of multimillion dollar shelters with semi-private suites, communal living areas and even a gym.

“This facility is going to accommodate 132 people, for one year of autonomous underground survival,” says Vicino, sitting at a small table in one of the bunker’s cavernous main rooms.

“It’s off the grid. There could be a nuclear blast, we could be under 500 feet of water where we’re sitting right now and we will survive. We have a CO2 scrubber, we have food storage for a year, medicine, clothing.”

Individual spaces will sell for $50,000 per person, $25,000 for kids under the age of 16. “Pets can stay for free,” says Vicino. “Dogs and cats.” That money buys you a single place to sleep in a four-bunk suite the size of a first class train compartment, and access to those shared living spaces.

Renovation is still months away. But Vicino is already taking 10 percent deposits on single spaces. When construction is complete customers pay the full amount, or they lose their reservations and get their deposits back. But here’s the catch; the owners can only live there in the event of a massive worldwide or regional catastrophe. And brother, it better be a whopper.

“They can’t just stay here [for any reason]. It’s not a resort, it’s not a stopover on the way to Vegas. Nor is it temporary housing,” says Vicino.

So if your neighborhood is torched in a big wildfire, or your apartment tumbles down in an 8.1 magnitude earthquake, chances are you won’t be able to bunk in your $50,000 room down in the Vivos shelter.

“If your house burned down because of wildfires, you’ll have to find other accommodations,” says Vicino. “This is a mega-catastrophe facility to survive the actual event or its aftermath.”

Think nuclear war. Or an electromagnetic pulse attack that knocks out electrical grids across the U.S. Or, what about those dubious predictions about the world ending in 2012?

“I don’t believe in 2012.” Robert Vicino doesn’t buy into those end time predictions based on misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar. But then he corrects himself, perhaps remembering that his company’s website highlights the whole Mayan calendar end-of-the-world thing.

“I don’t, uh, I’m 50-50 on that. But I do believe that even before then we might see anarchy with economic meltdowns that many are forecasting will happen this year.”

Vicino isn’t selling skepticism. He’s not here to reassure people that certain doomsday predictions probably won’t come true. But Vicino isn’t here to just sell people a hole in the ground either. To prospective buyers like Jason Hodge, he’s selling peace of mind.

“You might say that’s a lot of money to spend and you may never use it,” says Hodge, sitting in the Barstow office of the labor union he represents. “But it’s a fact that terrorists are trying to acquire nuclear weapons, dirty bombs. Don’t you want your family to have a safe place to go?”

The 40-year-old former civilian military employee is married with three kids. Hodge says he wants to be ready, and more importantly he wants his family to be safe. Hodge is trying to pull together the $25,000 needed just to reserve spaces in the Terra Vivos bunker. It’ll cost another couple hundred thousand dollars to actually close the deal. He may dip into family savings, or seek a bank loan. If it sounds risky to put up your family savings for a piece of property you may never use, Hodge doesn’t think so.

“I guess anything in life that’s worth it can be risky,” said Hodge. “I mean we spend more than that on houses these days. This is someplace that for less money than most houses today can save your entire family’s life.”

But Hodges does admit to a dilemma that a lot of people faced during the Cold War, when nuclear war seemed imminent: if the bombs actually do fall, and that hypothetical mega-cataclysm is visited upon humankind, how do you face or fend off those with no shelter?

It’s a question explored in a 1961 episode of "The Twilight Zone." Neighbors in an idyllic east coast suburb turn on one another when faced with possible nuclear annihilation. Only one family has had the foresight to invest in a basement survival bunker.

“I kept telling you Jerry, all of you. Get ready, build a shelter and make the admission to yourself that the worst was possible,” dentist Bill Stockton (played by veteran TV actor Larry Gates) tells his panicked neighbors as they plot to break into his family’s small basement shelter. “None of you wanted to listen! To build a shelter would be to admit to the kind of age we live in! God help you Jerry, it’s out of my hands!”

The episode is a chilling reminder of the fears that consumed many American communities 50 years ago, and also illustrative of the way that fear was capitalized on, says Chico State University history professor Kenneth Rose.

“Most people were convinced that nuclear war [was a very real possibility], and selling shelter equipment seemed like a can’t miss business opportunity.”

Rose is the author of “One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture.” He believes fallout shelters were a bad idea then and a bad idea now.

“People understood back then that even if you survived a nuclear attack, everything that you’d known in your life would probably be gone,” says Rose. “There was a collective revulsion too against this idea of hiding down in a hole.”

But Terra Vivos chief Robert Vicino says the potential threats that could send people scurrying underground today are different and more varied then they were in 1961. The potential threats that have us wringing our hands these days (natural disaster, widespread anarchy, targeted terrorist attacks) don’t necessarily spell the end of the world.

“You know, to say that you wouldn’t want to be around, you’re presuming that the other side is going to be terrible,” says Vicino.

“There are many scenarios that the Earth is not devastated, but you still need to find shelter; could be a tidal wave from an asteroid. You won’t survive the wave, but once the waters subside, you’ll be able to go back. You may also want life assurance for certain members of your family.”

Robert Vicino hopes to have the inaugural Terra Vivos shelter near Barstow renovated and furnished later this year – hopefully before that doomsday asteroid strikes the earth.