Business Is Booming in Nuclear Doomsday Bunkers, Thanks to Trump

While super-rich Americans are preparing for the worst, their Israeli counterparts can't see the point of a nuclear shelter. And in case you don't have $8 million to spare, experts say the sea is the best place to be if the bomb drops.

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Gary Lynch, CEO of the Rising S Company that builds doomsday bunkers.
Gary Lynch, CEO of the Rising S Company, which builds doomsday bunkers, at their Texas factory.Credit: Joyce Marshall/AP
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan

U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration was a defining moment for Gary Lynch, because that was when the CEO of the Rising S Company started facing an unprecedented demand for his firm's doomsday bunkers.

“The phone really just blew up,” he says without irony, in a phone conversation from Murchison, Texas.

In the two months that have elapsed since Trump entered the White House, Lynch says the demand for his firm's nuclear shelters has jumped by about 400 percent. But that's nothing compared to the increased demand for high-end doomsday bunkers, which has soared by nearly 700 percent.

Indeed, even in a – heaven forbid – future apocalypse, man will not be equal. While survivors on the ground scramble for every last crumb in order to survive, the rich will be able to huddle in underground bunkers, while the super-rich will enjoy spacious bunkers and alleviate their anxiety in the swimming pool or gym. There's a good reason why the top-flight model at Rising S is called “The Aristocrat.” This is a deluxe underground estate that can house up to 50 people (including sleeping arrangements for them all), and includes parking lots, swimming pool, Jacuzzi and sauna, pool room, bowling alley, movie theater and workout room. The price of the complex: $8.35 million.

“Basically, people are afraid of nuclear bombing,” says Lynch, outlining his customers' concerns. “They know that as long as Iran, China or Russia threaten us, Trump won’t back down. And they are afraid that if we most likely go to war, nukes will be used.” However, he adds, the threat of civil unrest is also a factor: “Some of our customers are afraid of possible social and economic collapse.”

Lynch says his company employs about 100 workers, 30 of whom have been added since the election to cope with the demand.

So who are his customers? It's tempting to categorize them based on the expected profile: wealthy to super-wealthy people with high levels of anxiety. Lynch says most of them are independent businesspeople, but there are also quite a few well-known politicians, actors and athletes among them. When he says “so many Hollywood stars have their managers call us and order them bunkers,” the association that immediately springs to mind is the link between reality and fiction.

One celebrity couple that has already bought a doomsday bunker is Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. The songwriter-businessman who raps about institutional racism and his reality-TV celebrity wife have already admitted Lynch's company is building them an especially luxurious bunker. The exposure-loving couple is unusual in this regard, though, because secrecy is usually the industry norm. After all, as Lynch explains, “It’s not a good idea telling people the location of something you wish to keep as a place of refuge in a time of trouble. It’s like when you were a kid and played hide-and-seek, you didn’t tell your friends, ‘Listen, I’m going to hide behind this tree or in the bedroom.’ It’s exactly the same thing.”

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West arrive at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards in New York, U.S., August 28, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Despite the heavy screen of secrecy, the names of a few owners have still emerged into the public domain. Bill Gates, for example, is rumored to have a large, luxurious shelter beneath each of his homes in California and Washington state. But more interesting – and concerning – is a recent report in Dazed and Confused magazine, which stated that Rising S is set to build an addition to a luxury bunker in Colorado. This particular shelter belongs to a well-known businessman who is associated with a "terrific" reality TV show and was recently elected president of the United States. When I ask if Trump is enlarging his doomsday bunker, Lynch deadpans: “We never give specific names. We certainly wouldn’t give out his name now that he is president.”

Nuclear synagogue

In contrast to the hysteria for personal security in the United States, in Israel – which has experienced so many wars and constant security threats – many residents of Tel Aviv live in buildings where there isn’t even a standard bomb shelter. Nonetheless, Lynch says he has also built bunkers in Israel. “A few years ago, there was actually an especially big demand in Israel and I built 12 shelters there within a period of three years," he relates. "Of course, I can’t say for whom and where exactly.”

Rising S Company CEO Gary Lynch: "People are afraid of nuclear bombing. They know that as long as Iran, China or Russia threaten us, Trump won't back down."Credit: Joyce Marshall / AP

Israeli architects with whom Haaretz spoke were surprised by Lynch’s declaration. Very little is known about the doomsday bunkers in existence here, although media reports say various tycoons have invested in them. There were reports that billionaire Teddy Sagi had a bunker installed, while Israeli architects speculate that businessman Morris Kahn has one at his Beit Yanai home. However, in general, the architects find the subject ridiculous. Ilan Pivko says he has planned only a few in his career, while Maya Plesner says she has planned a grand total of two. “It seems crazy to me to build bunkers like that in Israel,” she says. “You should ask me if I can explain the two I planned so far.”

Fellow architect Yoav Anderman concurs. “A client once asked me to design a bunker like that for him, but we didn’t get there in the end. It was complicated to obtain a building permit for digging to such a depth, and that made the licensing process very cumbersome. I finally got him to drop it, because the very idea is ridiculous. OK, let’s suppose you have a nuclear bunker and a bomb falls. You’ve made it safely through the first three hours. You’ve made it safely through the first three weeks. What do you come out to after that? This was the dialogue I had with the client. It’s very nice for American survivalist types in the prairies of Nebraska, but I don’t think it holds water in a small place like Israel. After all, a single bomb will cover most of the areas where rich people live, and what will they emerge to afterward? I don’t see the logic in this, except to calm hysteria a bit. It’s a kind of psychological Band-Aid.”

Nuclear physicist Dr. Avi Malki advises architects on building bunkers in Israel, and agrees that it's a very rare phenomenon here. However, he's keen to stress their effectiveness. “A bunker like this is suitable for a stay of about two weeks, and after that you have to emerge from it. And when people emerge, there will be fallout in the air. Nevertheless, in the vast United States the air currents will take care of the radiation – and even if it falls to the ground, the rain can wash it into the rivers.

A doomsday bunker built by Rising S Company being lowered into position. Don't expect the owner to tell you it's there.Credit: Rising S Company

"In Israel, if there is a nuclear explosion, the wind patterns will cause everything [the fallout] to move in the direction of Syria. Take, for example, the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki [in 1945]. Do you know how many people died from the radiation? About 600,000 people were killed in the initial explosions by the heat and fires. And do you know how many died after that? Seven-hundred people. [Figures from the Manhattan Project put the initial number of deaths at some 110,000.] Which means it is necessary to protect yourself from the initial explosion, but the radiation itself is less dangerous. After a week or two, it will blow away and then in effect the danger will have passed.”

But, Malki adds, the wealthy people who buy these doomsday bunkers probably won’t need them when the moment of truth arrives. “Let's face it, the moment a nuclear risk is declared, all of them will flee the country. These bunkers are intended for an emergency [attack] with no advance warning. The moment there's an alert, these people have yachts and ships waiting for them. And we know it's better to be at sea than on land at the moment of a nuclear explosion. The moment there's any real danger, you won’t see a single vessel at the ports in Herzliya or Haifa. Everything will empty out.”

Maybe the best way of highlighting the difference between the Israeli and American spirit is not what local tycoons will (or will not) be doing in their doomsday bunkers when the time comes, but rather, what they're doing with them in the meantime. “From all the bunkers I’ve built, it would be possible to write a book about the uses people make of them,” says Reuven Eitan, who says his company has advised more than 100 families about what he calls “domestic nuclear bunkers” over the past 30 years.

“It's usually a dual-use area," he explains. "Either it's in the basement and is used for servants’ quarters, or it's for the children, or it becomes a wine cellar, a movie theater, gym or event space, depending on the size of the building. We even had a nuclear bunker that became a synagogue.”

Subterranean stable

What exactly does a doomsday bunker offer, giving you bang for your buck? A steel structure, buried beneath the ground, which can be covered in rubber, concrete or a special material that prevents corrosion; plumbing (toilets and showers, tanks for water storage); electricity (generators, air-conditioning units or special LED lighting); protection (air-purification systems, safe-deposit boxes), storage solutions and a variety of other services aimed at making life easier, such as elevators or parking lots. “We use the same air filtration and carbon that the military uses," says Lynch. "So the technology we build with has already been tested successfully thousands of times by the U.S. government.”

The price for the company’s bunkers starts at $40,000. “Among other things, we have one model suitable for any need or scenario, a mini-bunker of 10 feet by 50 feet. It has water filtration, air filtration, blast valves, sinks, showers, toilets, a camera system, a solar energy generator. It is called the Silver Leaf Series 10x50 Bomb Shelter Hidden Rooms, and it can house 10 people comfortably. It costs $130,500 – but the price also depends on where you want it installed. In a shipment to Israel, it could amount to $500,000. The upper limit of our price list depends solely on the depth of the client’s pocket. Our expensive shelters start at $8 million, but we can also build a shelter for $100 million if someone wants that.”

From a design perspective, all of Rising S Company's shelters are produced in the United States and come with fully equipped kitchens, beds and mattresses, and look more like spacious single-family homes. But this is just the starting point. Lynch has already built subterranean sports fields, a huge swimming pool and screening rooms. As far as he's concerned, the sky's the limit: “Anything you can think of, I am willing to do.”

One of the requests Lynch can never forget is for an underground horse stable. “He had 12 horses there worth a total of $30 million. You don’t endanger an amount of money like that! Personally, I think what’s crazy about this story is not the request to build a stable, but the fact that someone has horses worth tens of millions of dollars,” he laughs.

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