It was only a matter of time perhaps before stories began surfacing that fearful Americans, casting a wary eye on Wall Street, were stockpiling supplies in anticipation of a second Great Depression.

We have all the right ingredients, after all.

Stir together America’s colorful tradition of rugged individualism and survivalist tendencies, the misplaced paranoia leading up to Y2K, and the very real fear that understandably pervaded the country after Sept. 11 and you get a story that surfaced Sept. 30 from a small daily newspaper in Marysville, California.

When journalists weeks ago began comparing the credit squeeze on Wall Street to the Great Depression, historians and economists called them crazy and sensationalistic. It’s nowhere near as bad today as it was back then, the response went. Anyone alive at the time can tell you that. Too many people just don’t have the historical context to understand how bad it’s truly been before. There’s no Dust Bowl occurring and no one should expect a new Great American Novel to top Steinbeck.

The media did overstate things in the beginning, unable to avoid the irresistible reference point. But things kept getting worse, and while it didn’t originally look like the most significant financial crisis in America compared to other moments like the 1970s recession or the dot-com bust, the end of last week saw Washington talking about insuring large bank deposits to prevent a run on them and new records were set in both percentage and point drops for the Dow Jones average.

In that spirit, the Appeal-Democrat of Marysville, a town with fewer than 12,000 people located 40 miles north of Sacramento, reported in a story headlined “Preparing for financial apocalypse” that residents were buying up survivalist gear fearing a return to breadlines and jobless hobo folk singers.

A surplus-store owner heard customers say they were putting up security fences and beginning to grow their own food. They’re also stockpiling dried goods and ammunition.

“I’ve been selling ammo cans by the pallet,” Tom King, owner of Sutter Surplus Sales, told the paper.

An online seller of Meals Ready-to-Eat, water filters and other survival supplies told the Appeal-Democrat that sales have skyrocketed.

“In the last two weeks we’ve sold 200 percent above normal levels in just about everything,” said the company’s sales and marketing manager, Jonathan Dick, according to the story.

It seems possible that any recent increased demand for emergency food and equipment nationwide at least would have more to do with the various natural disasters that occurred over the summer like a wave of wildfires in California and Hurricane Ike in Texas. FEMA is buying out wholesale suppliers to support victims who are now homeless.

But at King’s Marysville store and for the online supplier interviewed by the Appeal-Democrat, customers are openly citing the steady stream of bad news from Wall Street as the reason why they’re buying duffel bags and dehydrated edibles.

“We had a record day yesterday,” the paper quoted Dick saying, referring to the Monday before Congress authorized the bailout. “It’s not just extremist people. There’s a lot of uncertainty out there right now.”

Many customers at the Marysville store “mention the current financial crises as their primary reason to stock up on such items.”

“‘They think the polarization between the haves and have-nots is going to be very extreme,’ King said. And when limited resources become even more valuable, ‘they’ll need to stay mobile.’”


Preparedness video from the Department of Homeland Security

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.